What are psychoactive substances? These are the questions most frequently asked by parents of children with developmental disabilities or learning difficulties. The answer to this question may surprise many of us. We were born with the ability to experience thought, emotion, and behavior in much the same way as everyone else. For some with health conditions, psychoactives are used to help them experience thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a unique way. Recently, scientists have discovered that the human brain contains a vast amount of naturally occurring neurohormones and neurotransmitters that work together to control different parts of our bodies and allow us to experience all of the sensations that are associated with being awake and aware (1).


If these neurohormones and neurotransmitters exist within the human brain, how come recreational drugs such as amphetamines, LSD, ecstasy, and mushrooms can change these functions and result in psychosis and hallucinations? The answer lies in the fact that the psychoactive substances we use every day are not actually “psychoactives” per se. Although these psychoactives do alter the state of our consciousness and perception in some manner, they do not change our brains in any way that alters reality. This may surprise some of us, but consider this: Have you ever driven down a country highway at night with the radio blaring from the TV, only to find yourself awake and feeling like you might go on a shooting spree? That is because you have experienced a near-death experience, which is essentially a psychosis-induced state of consciousness.

So, what types of substances can we label as psychoactives?

There are several: stimulants, hallucinogens, and phenethylamine (depending on the chemical name). There are also two broad categories of substances used for religious purposes, peyote and hallucinogens. Peyote is a cactus-like mushroom that has been used for centuries by Native Americans to cure their addictions and to encourage spiritual growth; its colorful, aromatic leaves are dried and smoked for its psychotropic properties. Peyote has a very strong religious connotation in many Native communities, and it was banned in some jurisdictions several years ago because of the dangerous side effects it could have on hunters.

Many religious and spiritual groups condemn peyote and other psychoactives, claiming they encourage promiscuity and temptation. In a similar vein, many advocates of drug rehabilitation claim that seeking treatment for addiction to these types of substances is somehow “slavery” itself, implying that drug rehabilitation is simply a modern version of slavery. While there may be some truth to this criticism, it is certainly true that many people who go through drug rehabilitation do relapse. It is also true that many who go through treatment do not exhibit any outward signs of addiction whatsoever. It is also true that many who do not display any outward signs of addiction have successfully overcome their addictions and can successfully return to living normal lives.


There are a number of differences between the two main categories of psychoactive and their interaction with neurotransmitters. The two main categories are tonic and non-tonic, meaning that one is not as powerful as the other. Tonic drugs are those that act on the receptors on the ends of neurons and block the receptors so that the substance is inactive or ineffectual. Non-tonic drugs act on the opioid receptors on the synapses in the brain and do not block the receptors, but they do not affect the receptors at all.

What are the common psychoactive drugs used?

When people talk about psychoactives, they are usually referring to either painkillers like OxyContin, codeine, morphine, or methadone, or tranquilizers like Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, and Valium. But the most common, and powerful, is alcohol. Alcohol, like most psychoactive medications, alters the function of neurotransmitters in the brain; therefore, alcoholism is classified as a form of mental disorder along with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and psychosis.

What are the common side effects of these psychoactive drugs?

A common side effect of alcohol, for example, is liver damage. This results when the production of chemicals called acetaldehyde in the liver’s cells becomes out of control. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that makes the nerve cells of the liver fire much faster than they should. Over time, this can result in liver failure, which can eventually lead to death. Some common alcohol side effects include dizziness, sweating, dilated pupils, confusion, dry mouth, depression, agitation, insomnia, constipation, and nausea.

How are these types of medications used in mental health treatments?

While it may be true that these medications can offer relief from many common symptoms of mental illness, there are some inherent risks that are not addressed by every medicine. Psychoactives are highly addictive because they alter the normal chemical balance of the brain and central nervous system. This allows people to become dependent on them to feel normal and function normally.