Voices: What Prince Harry said about drug use and the psychological reason behind it

Among the many revelations made by Prince Harry in his new book, Spare, is his admission to using illegal drugs. These included cannabis, cocaine and magic mushrooms, although it’s not clear if this was all at the same time or on separate occasions.

He sounds a little disappointed with the effect that cocaine had as he describes how his friends were noticeably happier – but that wasn’t how he felt. It did make him feel different, which he says was his objective. The question is different to what? Was he sad, grieving for his mother or unsure about his future and where he fitted in? All of these are probable as he has disclosed these thoughts publicly.

Cocaine, like many other psychoactive drugs, is an effective way of altering how we feel or think. So if you’re feeling low, cocaine can quickly change that negative feeling and thought pattern. Unlike counselling or mental health services, drugs don’t have a long waiting list or ask invasive questions. Drugs are easy to source and act quickly. In that sense, it is clear to see how they might appeal to someone like a young Prince Harry.

He was hardly unusual in using drugs like cocaine at this stage in his life, as it is young people who in the past made up the majority of those using drugs in a recreational way.

The proportion of young people who don’t use drugs has – if anything – increased in recent years, as the current cohort are rejecting all drugs, including alcohol. We don’t know why this has happened, so can only speculate that it might be due to concerns they have about their online profile and the stigma associated with appearing intoxicated and out of control.

Interestingly, Prince Harry suggests that’s exactly how he wanted to feel when using cocaine, a drug that he used on more than one occasion. In his late teens, Prince Harry was viewed as something of a royal rebel as he was pictured on several occasions partying and leaving nightclubs early in the morning.

Cocaine can help facilitate prolonged partying as it provides an energy boost. But as with all drugs, there is a downside. Adverse effects include reduced impulse control and raised levels of irritation. Whether this contributed to the documented outbursts that Prince Harry had at that time in his life as he physically challenged press photographers isn’t clear, but at the very least, cocaine can dilute self-control and significantly reduce any existing inhibitions.

Paradoxically, part of the attraction of illegal drugs is their forbidden status, something that Prince Harry admits. This appeal is something many young people admit to when asked about why they use illegal drugs. The seduction of being told not to do something can be too powerful to resist, particularly when you are being strongly and persistently directed to behave and be a certain way, as younger members of the royal family are. Again, it is easy to imagine the appeal that drugs like cocaine had for the young prince as they offer temporary but immediate escape from a very ordered lifestyle and controlled routine.

It is unlikely that what appears to be brief experimentation with illegal drugs will have had any lasting impact on Prince Harry. As with most young people who experiment with drugs, they tend to grow out of it once they start work or are trying to develop their career, in addition to committing to a relationship with a partner. It isn’t education or public health warnings that are effective in shifting this behaviour – it is simply growing older and maturing.

What does have a lasting impact on too many young people is a criminal conviction for using drugs, thwarting employment opportunities as well as travel to places like America where Harry now lives. Prince Harry – like others with privilege – don’t need to fret as they are far less likely to be caught and convicted for drug use.

Like many of those holding senior political positions who have confessed to past drug use, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be prosecuted, they may, if anything, think it will add something to their public cachet. They don’t face the stigma and discrimination that those without means experience, all of which highlights the contrast between those at the top of society and those not so well off or connected.

While it’s not surprising that Prince Harry used drugs, it seems he still struggles with how he feels, in particular with the loss of his mother, Diana. Drugs can offer some time-limited respite from grief, but they don’t provide the healing needed to accept what has happened. There are no shortcuts through grief and, as Harry makes clear, it is a state that can last for years. We can only hope that he will find the peace he wants and that he is able to access support that will enable him to achieve it.

Drugs aren’t the long-term solution when mental health is compromised and royalty, despite all its privileges, provides no protection from this very ordinary but widely shared anguish.

Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York