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Watford Observer,
June 27, 2008

FOR a decade a Watford woman has been taking highly addictive tranquillisers despite strict guidelines issued by the Government 20 years ago that the drugs should not be used for more than a month.

Linda Sullivan, 53, was prescribed lorazepam - argued to be the most addictive benzodiazepine tranquilliser and harder to kick than Heroin - to treat panic attacks which began in 1998 with the illness of her husband.

Ten years on and Mrs Sullivan's problems were placed in the public arena when she was arrested for making around 50 nuisance phone calls over a number of weeks to police, after mixing her medication with alcohol.

Sullivan, of Dumfries Close, South Oxhey, pleaded guilty to making false 999 calls at Dacorum Magistrates Court on Monday and was sentenced to eight sessions on an alcohol treatment order.

A psychiatric report, ordered before sentencing, said she did not 'meet the criteria' to be dealt with by the mental health disorders panel. But during mitigation it was revealed Mrs Sullivan was still taking medication that should have been a short-term solution to her difficulties after she told the report author she had been on lorazepam for a decade.

Speaking at home after her case Mrs Sullivan, who suffers from agoraphobia and depression, said: "They have turned me into a junkie. I was told I was going to be on them for six to eight weeks and never queried it as the years passed.

"I was on one tablet (1mg) a day at first but somewhere down the line they stuck me on two a day, one in the day and one in the evening.

"In the beginning they helped, but now they do nothing. It is like swallowing a Smartie. It doesn't do anything."

Mrs Sullivan worked as a chambermaid at what was the British Rail civil engineer training centre until it became The Grove, up to the birth of her daughter, now aged 17.

She sought help from her GP for the panic attacks brought on by the illness of her husband, who died in 2002. Mrs Sullivan was initially prescribed lorazepam by Shrodells mental health unit at Watford General Hospital.

She was discharged from Shrodells last year and is now trying to get off the drug with the help of her GP. She suffers from arthritis and has also taken Mirtazapine for depression for several years.

She said: "I reckon they would have kept me on lorazepam if this court case hadn't happened.

"I have been under them [Shrodells] for years as an out patient. They put me on tranquillisers and left me on them.

"If I could give them up and stop taking them tomorrow I would, but I am so dependent."

lorazepam began receiving bad press more than 20 years ago. The BBC2 Brass Tacks programme highlighted its reputation for causing drug dependence with particularly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Its anxiety-relieving properties are estimated to be up to ten times that of diazepam and back in the 80s its high potency and withdrawal symptoms were not fully appreciated by medical practitioners.

Pharmacist Kathy Ajslam, of the Bridgewater Pharmacy, in Printers Avenue, Watford, says the problems with drugs like lorazepam were noted years ago after the tranquilliser was prescribed 'over-enthusiastically'.

However, she said the medical profession was aware of the issues now and it should not happen these days. "It's great short term, but longer term can cause problems," she said.

"Most doctors that I deal with would only use it short term.

"It has been used a bit over-enthusiastically in the past, and if they have been on it a long time the doctor has to work with them to take them off. Most doctors do not keep on prescribing them for a long time.

"They should be used short term to deal with matters like bereavement. Then they may get a week's worth, but then go back to see the doctor. I would be very surprised these days if someone given lorazepam was taking it in ten years' time.

"What happened in the past was they got given quite large amounts and there was no monitoring the way it should be."

The pharmacist said withdrawal can lead to the symptoms returning and patients must be weaned off slowly.

"It is like a crutch being taken away and you can feel anxious again. Some people that say it's like getting off Heroin."

In 1988, the Government's Committee on the Safety of Medicines sent out clear prescribing guidelines to every GP in the country. They stated that benzodiazepines should not be prescribed for longer than four weeks and in the lowest possible dose.

Campaigner for involuntary tranquilliser addicts Michael Behan, is a member of the cross party group at Westminster pushing for the four-week prescription guidelines to be enforced and rehabilitation programmes for 'involuntary' addicts.

He said: "Lorazepam is the worst. They do not know what they are doing when they are on the drug. It is the equivalent of drinking a bottle of whisky a day.

"Patients do not realise how addictive they are. They are much more addictive than heroin or cocaine and cause more deaths. It takes longer to come off and the side effects are more severe."

He added: "The drugs have no efficacy after the first four weeks. All it does is maintain the addiction.

"It is hard work to help someone withdraw from these drugs. They need extensive support and the medical profession is not prepared to put that effort in to help someone.

"They do not have the time or money to help people that are addicted to tranquillisers."

The Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, responsible for Shrodells said it cannot comment on individual cases, but in a written statement said: "Whilst there is guidance for the use of drugs, the prescription of drugs is always dependent on a full clinical assessment of an individual's needs. The final decision on treatment, including the use of drugs, and the review and monitoring of the effectiveness of the treatment, is a decision for the clinician based on their assessment of the patient.

"If an individual is concerned, or has any issues concerning their medication, we would urge them to contact the person who is prescribing their medication and talk it through with them."

Mrs Sullivan hopes others can benefit by knowing what she has gone through. She said: "If it can warn anyone else not to be on them that long that will be a good thing. I think people should know about these things. I didn't know they were addictive. If I could advise anybody not to go on these drugs willy-nilly I would."

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