Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Petty 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 easy availability, and partly due to their glorification in society.
The availability of benzodiazepine prescriptions has increased significantly. The worst offender is alprazolam, or Xanax, which was prescribed more than 48 million times in 2013. 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. It is surprising that 40 percent of people who use benzodiazepines daily for a minimum of six weeks become addicted to them, judging by their innocent portrayal in American culture. 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 both up-and-coming rappers as well as established artists. 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 America’s young people aren’t the only ones falling prey to this epidemic. Benzodiazepine-related overdoses between the ages of 18 and 65 have risen, proving that the problem is across the board. 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.
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, mixing benzos with other substances is extremely common. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA), roughly 95 percent of those who seek addiction treatment for benzodiazepine abuse also abuse at least one other substance. Benzos are also present in 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.
If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, we are here to help. Reach out to Mountainside by calling 888 833 4676.