Psychiatric drugs killing more users than heroin, cocaine, say health experts

published on May 17, 2016 by Stephanie Ip in The Vancouver Sun

Health professionals are sounding the alarm over the heightened risk of death linked to the use of psychiatric drugs, which was highlighted in a pair of Vancouver-based studies published this month.

Benzodiazepine (BZD) is a class of psychiatric medications known as “tranquilizers” which can reduce the body’s drive to breathe and are used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, seizures, and other conditions. They include commonly prescribed drugs such as Valium, Xanax, and Ativan.

The first of the two studies, which involved researchers from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) and the University of BC, looked at the impact of BZD use on mortality rates and established that use of BZDs was linked to a higher risk of death than illegal drugs.

Dr. Thomas Kerr, professor of medicine at UBC, echoed those sentiments: “Too often, we’re looking for an answer in a pill, and too often, we neglect other treatment options.”

Both doctors noted that there is very little evidence to support long-term use of BZDs.

“The interesting thing about this is that it’s a prescription drug and people think they’re safe,” Ahamad said. “But as it turns out, we’re probably prescribing these drugs in a way that’s leading to harm.”

Kerr noted that the rise in BZD-related deaths – “It’s been an epidemic brewing for many, many years” – very closely mirrors a rise in opioid-related deaths that has been widely documented. He cited a fourfold increase in BZD-related deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2014, and also noted that there are 50 per cent more deaths each year in the U.S. due to psychiatric medicine than heroin.

“These studies really reveal how very dangerous these drugs are, and they should be used with great caution,” Kerr said. “We can’t just focus on opioids, we need to look at other medications that are used in combination.”

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