When you hear about prescription drug overdoses, you tend to think about opioid painkillers. But you may be surprised to find out that deadly overdoses from anti-anxiety drugs are on the rise, leaving many mental health professionals wondering what is causing the increase.
A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows more Americans are overdosing on common benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications, such as Valium and Xanax. The quantity of prescriptions filled tripled between 1996 and 2013, and the number of overdoses quadrupled during the same time period.
Dr. Marcus Bachhuber of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who helped lead the study, said:
“Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time.”
Each year more than 5% of U.S adults fill a benzodiazepine prescription. These highly addictive drugs which treat anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia killed 23,000 people in 2013.
When benzodiazepines are abused or combined with other drugs and alcohol, they can depress the respiratory system sometimes fatally, Bachhuber explained.
For the new study Bachhuber’s team looked at large health surveys to find trends in the abuse of benzodiazepines. They wrote:
“The rate of overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased more than four-fold from 0.58 per 100,000 adults to 3.07 per 100,000 adults. However, this rate appeared to plateau after 2010. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased 67 percent, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million.”
The researchers also found a similarly large increase in the number of pills each person was prescribed.
“If we’re going to address the prescription drug crisis, we can’t just focus on opioids. We need to think more broadly about other drugs, like benzodiazepines.”
The study’s authors warn anti-anxiety drugs are being over-prescribed and suggest doctors investigate alternative drugs or treatments, such as talk therapy.
We reported earlier that public health directors and academics are pressuring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to put a “black box” warning on benzodiazepines, the agency’s strongest warning, because of the drugs’ addictiveness and the danger posed by combining these drugs with other medications.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.