The National Institute on Drug Abuse research indicates that opioid overdose deaths involving benzodiazepine prescriptions—such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan—quadrupled between 2002 and 2015.
The National Institutes of Health published a study that supports this data: benzodiazepine prescriptions have increased by 67 percent between 1996 and 2013.
These trends are indicators of a new crisis forming in the United States, on the heels of the already-persistent opioid addiction epidemic. The most common mental illness, anxiety affects more than 40 million individuals across the country.
While the use of anti-anxiety medication is often prescribed by a medical professional, the potential for abuse exists just as strongly as it does with opioid prescriptions. The Food and Drug Administration required “Black Box” warnings to be added to anti-anxiety medications, which indicates that the drug has serious side effects.
In particular, Xanax has a Black Box warning that indicates its high potential for abuse and addiction, as well as the risk of combining the anti-anxiety drug with opioids, which is the cause of many overdoses. The FDA also indicates that the lowest dose possible should be given.
The Black Box warning is the “harshest” warning that can be given to a prescription medication.
Anxiety is an increasingly common condition, though conversations surrounding mental health and mental illness are also more prevalent than ever before. Once a hush-hush topic, celebrities and other public figures are stepping forward to reveal that they, too, suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns.
Xanax and other anti-anxiety medications affect the brain by producing a calming effect. As it works within the body, the drug enhances the effects of a naturally-occurring chemical called GABA. Its intended use is for short-term, sudden anxiety events, such as panic attacks.
Xanax abuse has been highlighted in popular culture, with dozens of famous figures admitting to abusing the drug. In her documentary Simply Complicated, Demi Lovato stated, “I went on a bender of, like, two months where I was using daily. […] There was one night when I used a bunch of coke and I popped a few Xanax bars, and I began to choke a little bit. My heart started racing, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I might be overdosing right now.’”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that when combined with prescription opioids, the risk of a benzodiazepine overdose increases ten times over.
“What we’re seeing is just like what happened with opioids in the 1990s,”Stanford researcher and addiction specialist Dr. Anna Lembke stated in interviews to support team’s recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Patients being prescribed benzodiazepines should be made aware of all risks involved with taking an anti-anxiety medication, including the deadly risk of using painkillers alongside the drug. The risk of such a combination was made official by the FDA in 2016, causing many individuals to stop use of one medication or another.
Stopping either medication abruptly also carries a significant risk; withdrawal symptoms can include seizures, which can in some cases lead to death.
While anxiety will continue to be an extremely common issue, it is important to consider the dangers involved with medication treatment. Although not all will become addicted, it is critical that patients be monitored closely while taking such medications and that education be made a priority when dealing with mental illness and its courses of treatment.
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