People we should listen to. No. 3
Professor Heather Ashton on benzodiazepine withdrawal
Drugs linked to brain damage
An article in The Independent, Drugs linked to brain damage 30 years ago starts “Secret documents reveal that government-funded experts were warned nearly 30 years ago that tranquillisers that were later prescribed to millions of people could cause brain damage.” It also says
Heather Ashton, emeritus professor of clinical psychopharmacology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, set up the first NHS withdrawal clinic in 1984. In 1995 she submitted a research proposal to the MRC to investigate the link between long-term benzodiazepine use and permanent brain damage, using sophisticated EEG and MRI scans, and cognitive testing in a randomised control trial. Her proposal was rejected.
The Department of Health
The article also references the work of Professor Malcolm Lader. Professor Ashton referred to him in a letter to Dr Iona Heath, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners (02 August 2011).
In the radio programme Professor Lader was asked why the Department of Health had not taken action on this problem as it is admitted that there are over one million long-term prescribed benzodiazepine users in the U.K. who receive little help in withdrawal. His depressing reply was that
(1) the DOH is influenced by the powerful drug companies who would have to pay out millions of pounds/dollars in compensation if the health risks of long-term benzodiazepine use were exposed and
(2) general practitioners are afraid of litigation from patients who have been prescribed long-term benzodiazepines.
Withdrawal is the hardest part
The article in the Boston Globe, Withdrawal is the hardest part, highlights the problem of withdrawal from benzodiazepines given to lessen anxiety.
doctors and patients say physicians often prescribe benzodiazepines with no discussion of the dangers and the drugs’ declining effectiveness over time….
[One patient, Alison Page], said she was switched to another benzodiazepine and tapered off the original drug over three weeks but afterwards her withdrawal symptoms seemed to worsen.
“I didn’t sleep for two months,” she said. “I would be in fear states for maybe four, five, six hours a day. … It was almost like this primal feeling that you’re about to be attacked by a lion; you’re about to be killed.”
Dr. James Berry of the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, Maine, said.
“Generally, withdrawal symptoms … are the opposite of what a drug does,” he said. “If a drug relieves anxiety, the drug causes anxiety” during withdrawal.
[Alison] finally understood her symptoms when she found the online support group Benzo Buddies.
Heather Ashton’s comment on bezodiazepine addiction:
…long-term benzodiazepine use and addiction can cause a severe illness with many physical and psychological symptoms and considerable socio-economic consequences, including cognitive impairment, family breakup, loss of job, hospital investigations, traffic accidents, falls and fractures, withdrawal difficulties, and sometimes apparently permanent damage which has never been properly investigated.
On a recent thread on the BenzoBuddies forum, a newcomer is welcomed like this
Hello […]. Welcome to the forum, we’re glad you found us! Our members do understand what you’re going through, and you’ll find a lot of support here. Here are a few links you may find useful:
Withdrawal Support (during your taper).
The Ashton Manual is an authoritative source on what to expect in withdrawal and recovery. Dr. Ashton is an expert in the field. She describes and explains withdrawal symptoms, and there is also a section with withdrawal/taper schedules.
Political interest in benzodiazepine withdrawal
The Ashton manual was a product of the work Heather Ashton did while running the only NHS benzodiazepine withdrawal clinic – closed since 1994. (Benzo.org says: Her main clinical work was in running a benzodiazepine withdrawal clinic for 12 years from 1982-1994.) There are now no places in the UK where patients addicted to benzodiazepines can get help from NHS clinics – even though David Cameron said in 2013 to a question from Jim Dobbin MP
“First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has campaigned strongly on this issue over many years. I join him in paying tribute to Professor Ashton, whom I know has considerable expertise in this area. He is right to say that this is a terrible affliction; these people are not drug addicts but they have become hooked on repeat prescriptions of tranquillisers. The Minister for public health is very happy to discuss this issue with him and, as he says, make sure that the relevant guidance can be issued.”
Over a year later, there is still not much official help for those needing to withdraw from benzodiazepines. It seems David Cameron did listen to Heather Ashton but the Minister for public health didn’t.
However, the Department of Health assert that specialist services are available for benzodiazepine-dependent patients but a survey of 149 Primary Care Trusts in 2012 found that only 6 provided specialist services for patients dependent on prescribed benzodiazepines. The only specialist help has been left to a few local agencies, charities and voluntary organisations.
Professor Ashton’s Submission to the BMA Round Table meeting, 22.01.13 says
With regard to treatment for people addicted to prescribed drugs, the DOH told us that this matter is always referred to the local PCTs, claiming that adequate services are freely available in most areas. But there is no evidence for this claim – they had not done their homework – (so much for evidence-based medicine!)
It took an unpaid researcher for the all-party parliamentary group to send a questionnaire to the 149 UK PCTs inquiring whether they provided services for dependent prescribed benzodiazepine users who did not misuse other drugs. This was a result of many letters from prescribed addicted users saying that they were unable to obtain admission to local addiction centres or receive any treatment unless they also abused opioids or illegal drugs.
The answer that the researcher received was that 84% of the PCTs had no services at all for these benzodiazepine dependent patients. Only 6 of the 149 PCTs had dedicated services, 11 had partial services, but the rest had no separate services or did not reply.
Do watch Heather Ashton’s video on Benzodiazepine withdrawal. The other videos that come up after it are worth seeing.
Heather Ashton is someone we should listen.
Postscript June 2017: The Daily Mail campaigns…
Betrayed by the doctors who turned us into DRUG ADDICTS:How a nation of patients became hooked on prescription pills
- Fiona French was given prescriptions for benzodiazepine drugs to treat epilepsy
- The social scientist from Edinburgh sound herself on the medicine for 40 years
- Here, she describes the struggle to come off them – and her fight with addiction
Valium was dubbed the ‘ housewives’ choice’ and immortalised by the Rolling Stones as Mother’s Little Helper.
Its huge success put Roche in the pharmaceutical super league, where the Swissbased company remains.
The drug belongs to the family of benzodiazepines widely prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders, and as muscle relaxants and anti-convulsants.
There were claims that Valium, introduced in 1963, could lead to years of dependency – with women particularly vulnerable – in patients too anxious to leave their homes.
There were countless reports of careless overprescribing by doctors, and some experts claimed it was as difficult to come off Valium as it was to break a heroin habit.
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