From struggle to strength

Chemsex article in DDN
Darren Murphy

One man’s involvement in the London chemsex scene led him into addiction and prison. Now he’s set up a chemsex lifeline to help others, says Mark Hindwell.

Darren Murphy was a successful dancer when, in 2011, he first became involved in the chemsex scene in London. By the time he was in his mid-30s, Darren was heavily involved in the scene and dealing drugs to complement his lifestyle. Eventually, this led to his arrest and imprisonment in 2019.

Darren during his time on the chemsex scene
Old photo of Darren during his time on the chemsex scene

‘Being involved in the chemsex scene in London was a very dark time for me,’ says Darren. ‘The chemsex world can be a very grim place at times. You see lots of really risky behaviours, and people doing things they would normally never have dreamt of doing. But because people are using drugs and they’re within a community that normalises these activities, people behave in ways they would never normally behave. Once you step back into your “real world”, you reflect and it can be very troubling for people.’

Chemsex is defined as men who have sex with men (MSM) using drugs to enhance their sexual experiences – often in the context of prolonged or intense sexual activity. Typically, the drugs involved are methamphetamine, mephedrone, GHB and similar substances. Chemsex is associated with high-risk sexual behaviour, including multiple partners and unprotected sex. It can also lead to many significant physical health risks including addiction.

A Gay Times article from April 2024, Attempts to criminalise chemsex users are making the queer scene less safe than ever, suggests that up to 1,000 people have died from possible chemsex-related harms in the last decade. Regular participants can undergo traumatic experiences as they’re drawn deeper into a secretive underground scene.

‘I ended up in prison as a result of my involvement in the chemsex scene,’ says Darren. ‘That allowed me time to reconsider what I wanted to do with my life. I decided I didn’t want to go back into that world anymore. I got support to remain completely abstinent and I knew I wanted to help people who had been in a similar situation to myself and many of the other people I’d associated with in London.’

Chemsex Darren work
Darren at work

Darren moved back to his native Leeds in late 2019 after being released from prison. After a period of volunteering, he got a role as a recovery coordinator with Forward Leeds, the city’s alcohol and drug support service, led by Humankind. But Darren still felt he could do more.

‘I noticed there was no targeted or focused help for people involved in the chemsex world in Leeds,’ he says. ‘I knew it was huge but because it’s so secretive no one’s aware of it. There would be people desperate for help, just like I’d been, and I wanted to be able to offer something. Because it’s all so underground and stigmatised, even within the LGBTQIA+ community, people don’t feel that they can talk to anyone at all. They often don’t even think of approaching the local drug support service as they don’t think they have a “drug problem”.’

Darren was inspired by the work of David Stuart at London’s 56 Dean Street clinic in Soho. ‘David was a chemsex activist and he played a key role in developing the first chemsex services in the UK – I looked around Leeds, a city of nearly a million people, and thought we need something like that here for people too,’ he says.

‘I worked with my manager and Forward Leeds, who were happy to help me put pathways and dedicated support in place. I would describe chemsex as a secret epidemic. Those people out there know they need help but don’t know where to turn and often are too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone at all. They need to know there’s a safe place for them to come where people will understand them and show compassion.’

Darren with Patrick Hands of MESMAC
Darren with Patrick Hands of MESMAC

Darren created a direct pathway for people concerned about their involvement in the chemsex world. Through this he can provide dedicated personal support to people who may have felt they had nowhere else to turn.

Darren contacted a range of local services including Galop the LGBT+ anti-abuse charity, the Leeds sexual health clinic, the HIV ward of Leeds General Infirmary, BHA Skyline, an HIV support service in Leeds, and Yorkshire MESMAC, a sexual health organisation that supports MSM. ‘I’ve created a small network of supportive organisations who can collaborate on helping people involved in chemsex,’ he says. ‘We’re delivering training and sharing ideas on how best to support people. We’re trying to offer as many routes and open doors for people to get help as we can. This includes a weekly drop-in at the local MESMAC Yorkshire service in Leeds.’

The help on offer is focused on more than supporting people to stop using drugs and get out of the chemsex scene. ‘We offer harm reduction advice and support, so that if people do still want to be involved, we can ensure they’re keeping themselves and everyone else as safe as possible,’ says Darren. ‘If you’re involved or have been involved in the chemsex world there’s also a lot of mental wellbeing to consider as well. We’re trying to offer support that is caring and supports the whole person. We’re not just about stopping people using drugs but about making sure people are in a position to take care of themselves physically and emotionally.’

Chemsex cards that have been left at venues across Leeds
Cards that have been left at venues across Leeds

Once Darren had started with a small network of sympathetic services, he began to promote the support that Forward Leeds is now offering. This included developing a range of physical promotional materials and online social media campaigns. ‘The whole of the chemsex scene is run online and in people’s private houses, so you need an online presence as well. We took out paid advertising on some of the apps that people use to arrange meet-ups and parties, even mirroring the branding of the apps to catch people’s eyes.’

As well as training all the staff on chemsex, Darren has also run an open session for anyone working in healthcare in Leeds to find out more. Through this he’s been able to reach doctors, nurses and mental health specialists. He’s also put together a training package for workers across Humankind nationally.

Darren’s training covers a detailed overview of what chemsex is and the substances used. He gives people insights into the risks and harms, and provides harm reduction and safeguarding advice for them to pass on to people they are supporting. ‘The training has been a real success,’ he says. ‘I think I’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes to what might be happening in their town or city and how they can help people. This is a topic we all need to feel comfortable talking about, so we can break some of the stigma.’

One of the people from the local chemsex scene that Darren supported recently was a 25-year-old university student who had been referred to Darren through MESMAC Yorkshire. ‘He’d been experiencing extreme psychotic episodes when he used crystal meth. Initially, he’d come in for his emotional wellbeing and just for a safe place to talk to someone who would understand. After one particularly frightening psychotic episode, he decided to come in and get some support to stop. He’s now been abstinent for five months, is attending sustained recovery meetings and will graduate from university this summer with a 2.1.’

Darren is hopeful that attitudes to chemsex will change within services. ‘I hope that there will be a lot more organisations, especially drug and alcohol services and sexual health services, that have a better understanding of how to support people with these issues and how to signpost people for support,’ he says. ‘Often people aren’t asking questions about chemsex because of lack of knowledge and understanding. We need to empower and educate people, so they feel comfortable discussing chemsex and the issues people experience. We also need to have people offering more chemsex drop-in clinics and making it clear and obvious that they have the knowledge and skills to support people around chemsex issues.’

Thanks to additional funding from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), Darren has just been appointed to a new role at Forward Leeds – as a dedicated chemsex lead practitioner.

Mark Hindwell - Forward LeedsMark Hindwell is senior marketing and communications officer at Forward Leeds

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