Cocaine is far from just a "middle-class problem" in 2018, despite what some politicians in recent months (Sajid Javid, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan to name just three) would have us believe. About 875,000 people (or 2.6% of the population) aged 16 to 59 claimed to have used powder cocaine between 2017-18, according to the Home Office's Crime Survey for England and Wales. The only drug more popular in the UK right now is cannabis (used by 7.2% of people), and England, Wales and Scotland are among the "cocaine capitals" of Europe, along with the likes of Albania and Spain.
Its ruinous impact on the environment and its link to gang violence and other social problems has, rightly, received plenty of media attention in recent months. But less discussed are the drug's harmful effects on mental health. The number of people receiving hospital treatment for mental health disorders linked to cocaine has almost trebled in the last 10 years, NHS figures showed this week.
Between 2017-18 in England there were 14,470 admissions that involved patients experiencing mental and behavioural disorders because of cocaine use – almost three times as many as in 2007-08. The figure, which includes both powdered and crack cocaine, has been attributed to higher purity cocaine becoming more easily available.
Common side-effects of cocaine include irritability, mood swings, restlessness, panic attacks, paranoia and even psychosis, during which a user experiences auditory hallucinations and loses touch with reality. The rise in the number of people seeking treatment for these symptoms is doubly worrying as it coincides with government cuts to NHS addiction services, Professor Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist, told the Guardian.
One woman who knows just how damaging cocaine can be to mental health is 29-year-old Katrina E. Lawrence, a writer, mental health advocate and public speaker from Leeds, who was addicted to the drug as a teenager and self-harmed as a result. She was hospitalised, received therapy and was almost sectioned on several occasions, before she began taking prescribed antidepressants. Over the same period she also abused other drugs ranging from alcohol and marijuana to ketamine and acid. Ahead, she shares her experience with Refinery29.
"My journey with cocaine began aged 17. I'd dabbled with it before but I used it heavily then for around 18 months. I also used it frequently for years thereafter at parties and sometimes on my own. When my ex went out during the day I would feverishly use his stash, which he kept in a shoebox. I would be sat alone, high, at 2pm, waiting for him to get home so we could spend the night doing big fat lines, hoping all the while he wouldn't notice what I had stolen. He obviously knew, as I would greet him with eyes like saucers, twitching away, but thinking I was being discreet.
I would experience extreme panic and paranoia, and become so lost I was suicidal.
The first time I self-harmed I was under the influence of cocaine. When I used cocaine I felt indestructible. I was the epitome of confidence. You chat people's ears off on cocaine, you gurn incessantly, bite your gums to bits, your heart goes like the clappers. You think you're Jessica Rabbit but you look more like Roger. Everything is fast and feels euphoric. The restlessness can be sedated by dancing and partying, but once you're alone this gives way to panic attacks and is extremely stressful. The higher a drug takes you, the further you come crashing down and coke took me really high.
During every comedown from cocaine I'd experience extreme panic and paranoia, and become so lost I was suicidal. I never wanted to run out, I had to have more. As much as I was chasing the high, I was running from the low. I also remember several parties where my nose gave up and I ended up upside down, getting people to blow and shovel it up there. Either that, or I'd be spooning teaspoons of warm water in there. It wasn't a good look.
I think there are several reasons why the number of mental health hospitalisations for cocaine has increased so rapidly. Sometimes, the quality of the product is dubious. I've used cocaine and other powdered drugs that have been cut with some crazy stuff. I remember once buying and snorting three grams of coke that I knew was cut with bleach. I didn't care. Cocaine is also seen as a classy yet bohemian drug; a sophisticated drug of the middle and upper classes, and artists. I saw it as a very sexy substance.
It gave me false confidence and a big ego; this was in short supply. Lots of people want this feeling. I made many friends from cocaine but I now realise these were vapid relationships. You fall in love with people and expose your soul one minute and forget their name the next. This can also contribute to the anxiety. I felt stupid and almost as if I'd violated myself by exposing myself to so many strangers.
Our society is so fast-paced and we're fed so many changing stimuli that we've bred a very anxious environment. Cocaine use mixed with that will almost certainly be detrimental to one's mental health. On the flip side, thankfully mental health is increasingly accepted as a health priority which has led to more treatment. But mostly, I think kids just want to fit in and don't realise how addictive this stuff is.
I used cocaine to escape myself. I chose it specifically to fit in and appear cool. I couldn't sit alone with my own head, I was always lonely when alone. Twenty-two months ago I entered a 12-step recovery programme and haven't used a single substance since. I now coach others with their mental health and addiction queries and needs. I don't miss coke and where it took me, but I do sometimes smell that familiar petrol smell and immediately need a poo."
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please visit FRANK or call 0300 123 6600 for friendly, confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.