This blog was updated January 4th, 2019
Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Petty, and rapper Lil Peep all had benzodiazepines in their systems when they died from drug-related overdoses. They are far from alone. The abuse of benzodiazepines (benzos), powerful medications prescribed to treat anxiety and depression, has skyrocketed over the last decade ⎼ partly due to their availability, and partly due to their glorification in society.
The Rise of Xanax in America
The over prescription of benzodiazepines is a key factor behind the spike, with the worst offender being Xanax (alprazolam), the eight-most prescribed drug in the country. An average of 44 million Xanax prescriptions are written each year. Simple searches on sites like Reddit reveal “how to” guides for obtaining a prescription from a doctor. They also reveal that drugs like Xanax are easily accessible for purchase on college campuses as well as online.
To many, particularly young people, anti-anxiety medications seem like a harmless way to numb the outside world or maximize the effects of other substances. High school students are favoring Xanax over heroin and prescription opioids. Taking Xanax out of a parent's medicine cabinet may seem safer than buying illicit drugs on the street, but Xanax use has risks, including the potential for addiction.
Despite the fact that 40 percent of people who use benzodiazepines daily for a minimum of six weeks become addicted to them, anti-anxiety medications are often portrayed as harmless. For those who are prescribed these medications by a doctor, dependence often comes as a surprise. Such was the case for actress Lena Dunham, who was prescribed Klonopin to manage her panic attacks and PTSD and became hooked on the drug for three years.
The effects of benzodiazepines like Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax wear off quickly, causing some users to increase their dosage on their own to alleviate their anxiety symptoms. Across social media, it is not uncommon to see teens and young adults boasting about taking Xanax, often referred to as “zannies,” “bars,” and “downers.” They proudly share the results of their Xanax-induced blackouts as party stories, rather than cautionary tales. This is not surprising, considering that mentions of the drug can be found in countless lyrics from Travis Scott's "Sicko Mode" to Blackbear's "do re mi." Many musicians have embraced the drug, going as far as celebrating milestones with Xanax-themed cakes and posting videos of themselves taking the drug with captions like, “I took six Xanax, it’s lit. I’m good.”
But it’s not just Gen Z and Millennials that are falling prey to this epidemic. According to a study by the University of Michigan, one in four elderly Americans are dependent on benzodiazepines. And when it comes to benzodiazepine-related overdose deaths, the number has risen across all age groups.
The idea of being able to numb oneself from any negative emotions is appealing, causing Americans to welcome drugs like Xanax with open arms. Taking Xanax to avoid dealing with everyday annoyances has become so common that its abuse is glorified by some marketing companies. From greeting cards that promote mixing wine and Xanax to clothing and accessories with the word Xanax on it, there is no shortage of merchandise normalizing prescription drug abuse.
In upper middle class suburban towns, you won’t hear moms boasting about snorting cocaine or shooting up heroin ⎼ these are hard drugs that have a strong level of stigma attached to their use. But benzos are another story, and the phrase “mommy needs a Xanax” doesn’t need to be whispered. Wine and Xanax combinations are accepted and even have Facebook fan pages dedicated to them.
The Dangers of Mixing Benzodiazepines with Other Drugs
On its own, benzodiazepine abuse has a dangerous repressive effect on the central nervous system, significantly slowing down heart rate and breathing. When mixed with other substances like drugs and alcohol, the results can be deadly. Unfortunately, benzo users frequently mix them with other drugs in an effort to intensify the effects of one of the drugs. Over the last couple of years, an increasing number of drugs, Xanax included, have been laced with fentanyl — a drug so powerful that as little as two milligrams can kill you. Often, this is done without the user’s knowledge. This is exactly what happened to Eric Chase, son of TV host Eric Bolling, who thought he had purchased legitimate Xanax. However, the pill had been laced with fentanyl which led to his accidental overdose. Mixing benzos and opioids is especially common and especially lethal — benzos are present in almost one-third of fatal opioid-related overdoses.
While the opioid crisis has been monopolizing America’s attention, benzodiazepines have not only played a quiet but dangerous role in the epidemic but have actually started an epidemic of their own.
Safety Tips for Taking Benzodiazepines
For those suffering from mental health disorders, news that prescription anti-anxiety medications can lead to addiction or even death can be frightening. Fortunately, there are some precautions individuals can take if they are prescribed benzodiazepines.
- Only take the medication if prescribed by a trusted medical professional
- Ask your doctor if talk therapy or wellness practices would be a viable alternative for you
- Only take the prescribed dosage
- Be honest with your doctor about any and all side-effects that you are experiencing
- Alert your doctor if you start feeling that you need a higher dosage, as this could be a sign that you are becoming dependent
- Remember that benzodiazepines are intended for short-term use only. Do not take the medication for longer than 4 weeks unless instructed by a doctor.
While not everyone who takes prescription medications will become addicted, there is no way to determine who will or won’t. Because addiction can affect anyone, the best way to avoid addiction is to never start using.