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What Are the Specific Long-Term Effects of the Mental Damage Done to the Brain Which Are Caused by an Abused Amount of Psychiatric Drugs?

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The human brain is the most complex organ in the body. This three-pound mass of gray and white matter sits at the center of all human activity—you need it to drive a car, to enjoy a meal, to breathe, to create an artistic masterpiece, and to enjoy everyday activities. The brain regulates your body's basic functions, enables you to interpret and respond to everything you experience, and shapes your behavior. In short, your brain is you—everything you think and feel, and who you are.

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Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory: Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain deficits that persist well after he or she achieves sobriety. Exactly how alcohol affects the brain and the likelihood of reversing the impact of heavy drinking on the brain remain hot topics in alcohol research today. Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed and should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol (2). White and colleagues (3) surveyed 772 college undergraduates about their experiences with blackouts and asked, “Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went?” Of the students who had ever consumed alcohol, 51 percent reported blacking out at some point in their lives, and 40 percent reported experiencing a blackout in the year before the survey

Of those who reported drinking in the 2 weeks before the survey, 9.4 percent said they blacked out during that time. The students reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving. Equal numbers of men and women reported experiencing blackouts, despite the fact that the men drank significantly more often and more heavily than the women. This outcome suggests that regardless of the amount of alcohol consumption, females—a group infrequently studied in the literature on blackouts—are at greater risk than males for experiencing blackouts. A woman’s tendency to black out more easily probably results from differences in how men and women metabolize alcohol. Females also may be more susceptible than males to milder forms of alcohol–induced memory impairments, even when men and women consume comparable amounts of alcohol.

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In the third type of evidence from population studies, recent research has examined lifetime exposure to stressors and the impact of cumulative adversity on addiction vulnerability after accounting for a number of control factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, prior drug abuse, prevalence of psychiatric disorders, family history of substance use, and behavioral and conduct problems (Facchinetti F, et al. 1985). Cumulative adversity or stress was assessed using a checklist method and by counting the number of different events that were experienced in a given period during the lifespan. The effects of distal (events occurring more than 1 year prior) and proximal stress experiences (events during the most recent 1-year period), and their effects on meeting criteria for substance use disorders were also assessed. The findings indicate that the cumulative number of stressful events was significantly predictive of alcohol and drug dependence in a dose-dependent manner, even after accounting for control factors. Both distal and proximal events significantly and independently affected addiction vulnerability. Furthermore, the dose-dependent effects of cumulative stressors on risk for addiction existed for both genders and for Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic race/ethnic groups (Thayer JF, et al. 2006).

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Briefly, chronic use of some drugs can lead to both short- and long-term changes in the brain, which can lead to mental health issues including paranoia, depression, anxiety, aggression, hallucinations, and other problems. Many people who are addicted to drugs are also diagnosed with other mental disorders and vice versa. Compared with the general population, people addicted to drugs are roughly twice as likely to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, with the reverse also true. In 2015, an estimated 43.4 million (17.9 percent) adults ages 18 and older experienced some form of mental illness (other than a developmental or substance use disorder). Of these, 8.1 million had both a substance use disorder and another mental illness. Although substance use disorders commonly occur with other mental illnesses, it’s often unclear whether one helped cause the other or if common underlying risk factors contribute to both disorders.

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Facchinetti F, et al. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of heroin addicts. Drug Alcohol Depend. 1985;15:361–366.

Shively CA, et al. Effects of chronic moderate alcohol consumption and novel environment on heart rate variability in primates (Macaca fascicularis). Psychopharmacology (Berl.) 2007

Thayer JF, et al. Alcohol use, urinary cortisol, and heart rate variability in apparently healthy men: Evidence for impaired inhibitory control of the HPA axis in heavy drinkers. Int. J. Psychophysiol. 2006

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