What's Driving Australia's Cocaine Problem?

What’s driving Australia’s cocaine problem?

A psychiatrist reveals five factors that can lead to addiction, from undiagnosed ADHD to performance pressure and chasing status

IT’S NOT A title we, as a nation, would covet or advertise, but Australia is a global leader in consumption of cocaine. Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show 2.9 million Aussies (14%) admit to using the drug at least once, while lifetime usage has increased by 11 per cent since 2019.

When it comes to drug and alcohol use, no individual’s drivers towards usage are the same – which is also why treatment for addiction should never be a one-size-fits-all approach. However, through my two decades as a consultant psychiatrist working across both the public and private sectors in Australia and abroad, I’ve seen patterns among users of cocaine.

To help identify triggers and underlying issues that can lead to cocaine abuse and dependency, here are five common environmental factors that can influence a person taking the drug regularly.

1 Self-medicating

We’ve seen clients at my clinic, The Banyans Healthcare, who have been struggling with cocaine usage, who we discover are experiencing undiagnosed ADHD and are using cocaine to self-medicate. Why might they do this? Because cocaine is a stimulant and can therefore help with focus and concentration, which are common areas people with ADHD struggle with. In fact, people with ADHD are 50 per cent more likely to develop a drug or alcohol use disorder than individuals who don’t suffer from the condition. Prescribed and legal ADHD medication is also a stimulant, which has been designed for use in people diagnosed with ADHD through their GP. This is a much safer and fit for purpose solution to help treat the symptoms of ADHD.

2 Performance pressures

With a large disposable income, high-pressure working environments, long working hours and an intense social scene, cocaine is often the substance of choice for Australian C-Level executives. People working in such positions, particularly those in industries where there is enormous pressure to achieve results, may turn to cocaine due its stimulating effect, hoping to increase their productivity, and keep them awake and able to perform for longer. Feelings of happiness and confidence, along with increased energy, alertness and mental sharpness, make cocaine the drug of choice for these high achievers. Yet, this energy is short-lived and unsustainable, with users often crashing as their bodies are unable to keep up physically.

3 Chasing social status

We often see clients who started using cocaine almost as a status symbol. There is a public perception that cocaine is a ‘low-risk’ drug, as it is more expensive to obtain, carrying with it a sense of glamour and exclusivity. There’s also a perception that it’s not as addictive as other drugs. Similar to alcohol, users may feel peer-pressured into partaking in the drug. We know that cocaine and alcohol are often present in some business networking forums, with the drug forming a part of social networks in certain industries. Dependency can develop after a very short period of use and may go unrecognised for a long time.

We see a large proportion of users describe themselves as ‘social’ users who may not be aware that ‘occasional or social use’ has actually morphed into addiction.

4 ‘Low-risk’ perception

While individuals who begin using cocaine socially often classify themselves as recreational users, this regular usage can easily turn into a dependency or addiction. The perception that cocaine is ‘not as bad’ or ‘less addictive’ than other illicit drugs is incorrect. Risk factors include raised body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. Using large amounts can lead to overheating, strokes and heart attacks. Even in smaller doses, cocaine can induce anxiety, paranoia, agitation, headaches, dizziness, insomnia and aggressive behaviour.

Additional costs of heavy prolonged use include: damage to the nose and respiratory system; risk of blood clots/aneurysm; sexual dysfunction; and depression/psychosis.

5 Comedown avoidance

Cocaine is often consumed with alcohol and users can feel less intoxicated due to the stimulant effect of cocaine, leading them to drink more. Alcohol has a depressant effect that slows down your body and brain messaging, while cocaine is a stimulant that speeds things up. Together, they can enhance a high, or reduce unwanted effects separately associated with alcohol or cocaine use. But the toll these conflicting substances can exact on your body is substantial, especially if done regularly.

There is a misconception that alcohol can curb the withdrawal and anxiety when cocaine’s effects start to wear off. However, alcohol can increase cravings for cocaine, creating a cycle of misuse of both substances. Coming down off cocaine can sometimes feel like getting the flu; but for longer term users, there is little or no hangover, and they are able to work the following day without impairment or consequence. This feeds into the idea that cocaine use is less likely to negatively impact a person’s life than other illicit drugs and is associated with high functioning. The truth, however, is that this leads to reliance on the drug, with the person needing to take more and more to get the same effects – a process that continues until their body and mind can’t cope with it anymore.

The triggers above are only a snapshot of what can spark a person’s battle with substance abuse. Addiction is a very real – and complex – experience to navigate, with those in the midst of battling substance abuse subject to a range of unique and widespread challenges in overcoming it. It’s essential to seek professional help so that you can begin recovery and get your life back on track. Seeking assistance can assist in breaking the cycle of addiction, help identify underlying issues and build new habits.

Dr Sampath Arvapalli is the medical director at The Banyans Healthcare


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