Experts issue urgent Freshers Week guidance for students: Ketamine is not a “safe” drug 

  • Consultant Psychiatrists at Priory have warned about rising ketamine use among students
  • Addiction and substance misuse experts have issued an urgent safety warning ahead of the new academic year
  • Ketamine use can make people vulnerable, can lead to depression and anxiety, and can cause severe lower urinary tract symptoms including incontinence 

Addiction experts at Priory have issued urgent advice for students about ketamine risks, at the start of the 2023/24 university year. 

Ketamine use is sharply on the rise among young people. Often seen as a ‘safe party drug’ by students, its effects can cause significant harm according to Priory experts. 

Priory has seen a 34% increase in treatment enquiries for ketamine addiction in 2023, compared to two years ago, while government data shows a 350% increase in people entering treatment for ketamine problems in the past 8 years. 

Reports state that ketamine users are on average ten years younger than other illegal drug users. More than 1 in 20 16-24 year olds report they have taken the drug, nearly treble the rate 15 years ago. 

The appeal for students and young people may be because of its affordability – it is around £3 for a single use ‘bump’ – and high availability, particularly on university campuses. It can also be perceived as a safe option compared with other drugs like cocaine, heroin, or even alcohol. 

Whilst ketamine is not typically a drug that experts consider to cause death, when mixed with other drugs, or used irresponsibly, its impact can be devastating. 

Dr Radu Iosub, consultant addiction and general adult psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Bristol said “Many younger people may perceive ketamine as a safe drug because, unlike some other drugs of abuse, it is less likely to cause death by inhibiting the respiratory function. 

“But high doses of ketamine can lead to a state of severe intoxication, with complete detachment from reality. It’s effectively a state of induced anaesthesia, referred to by users as a “K-hole” state. When severely intoxicated with ketamine, individuals become more vulnerable to exploitation by others, accidents or even severe injury or death. 

“Many users cite the dissociative effect of ketamine as a way of dealing with underlying problems such as depression and anxiety or coping with past trauma. In many of these cases, ketamine use will tend to become entrenched and even dependent, leading to significant harm and a decline in function. 

“Another significant risk comes from frequent contaminants. Analyses of seized ketamine samples often reveal a variety of contaminants such as other hallucinogens, benzodiazepines, stimulants or even opioids. 

“There is often a “come-down” from ketamine that includes feelings of low mood and anxiety, which can become problematic over time and interfere with the ability to focus and study.” 

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health and addiction rehabilitation services. 

Dr William Shanahan, Medical Director at Priory Hospital Roehampton highlights another long term and serious effect on users known as “ketamine bladder”. 

He explains: “This can cause the user to pass blood, suffer severe bladder pain, known as ‘ketamine cystitis’, and potentially lose complete bladder control, requiring surgery to replace it with a piece of small bowel. Some people may need a permanent external bag to collect urine. 

“Whilst a new bladder may be constructed, urologists would warn it will not have any muscular strength, and passing urine will be very slow and difficult to control. This can lead to permanent incontinence and the need to wear pads. And in men, bladder removal may mean removing the prostate and seminal vesicles, rendering them infertile and unable to ejaculate.” 

For medical support, people can contact their GP, call NHS 111, or contact Priory specialists for a free addiction assessment. 

Priory treatment for ketamine users includes consultations with specialist consultant psychiatrists to understand the underlying mental health problems that could perpetuate the use of ketamine, in order to create a comprehensive clinical management plan. This may include psychological treatments, medication or other interventions, both on an in- or out-patient basis. For higher complexity cases, 28-day residential specialist addiction treatment programmes combine the medical element of treatment (medically assisted ketamine detoxification, where required) alongside psychological and psychosocial treatments such as daily group therapy sessions and weekly one-to-one therapy.

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