The opioid addiction crisis killing thousands of Americans has overshadowed an equally serious epidemic: A rapidly worsening rash of overdoses from anti-anxiety drugs.
These drugs — benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium — are responsible for the deaths of almost 7,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are often prescribed to treat issues like anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasticity, and even epilepsy, but off-label use is also quite common.
A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, using data collected between 1996 and 2013, found that the rate of overdose deaths from anti-anxiety drugs are rapidly outpacing the number of prescriptions being filled. While the number of patients filling prescriptions rose 37 percent — which in itself is remarkably high — during the study period, the number of people who died after taking too many benzos rose by a staggering 500 percent.
Benzos work to treat anxiety and related conditions by making roughly 40 percent of the neurons in the brain slightly less susceptible to excitation so they are no longer overly reactive. In other words, benzos dull your brain out.
Taking an inappropriately high dose of benzos, however, could result in oversedation, causing the central nervous system — which controls breathing — to slow down to a dangerous and potentially fatal degree.
Attempting to explain the dramatic uptick in benzo-related deaths, the authors have suggested that people might be taking the drug in “risky ways.” Combining benzos with other drugs can make them even more dangerous. As the CDC reports, most people who die from prescription drug overdoses have a combination of both benzos and opioid painkillers in their bodies.
It probably doesn’t help that anti-anxiety drugs — Xanax, in particular — have become a pop culture staple, with artists like Future to Kanye West frequently referencing their casual off-label use. Rapper Earl Sweatshirt has taken a more cautious approach, speaking out about his panic-induced dependence on the drug in his song “Grief.”
The rising number of benzodiazepine-related deaths, though alarming in itself, is a symptom of a much greater issue — the gross overprescription of anti-anxiety drugs. Organizations such as the American Psychological Association have spoken out about the more judicious use of these drugs by both physicians and patients, asserting that psychosocial treatment should be more strongly considered before medications are prescribed. If the psychiatric community plans to create and adopt any system-wide changes, they’ll need to act soon to prevent overdoses on benzos from getting worse.