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'GPs turned us into drug addicts'

Yours Magazine,
February 26, 2008

Guidelines state benzodiazepine tranquillisers should not be routinely prescribed for more than four weeks. Yet thousands of older women have been on them for up to 35 years and are now addicted.

Kathleen Dunion doesn't make it out of her bedroom much most days. It was October 2007 when she last left the house and that was the first time for a year. Tears roll down her cheeks as she lays in bed thinking about how lonely her life has become.

Like an estimated 1.1 million people in the UK - the majority, women over 50 - Kathleen is hooked on anti-anxiety drugs prescribed by her GP. At 70 she's battling to come off the medication her GP prescribed when she was a young woman of 35. The withdrawal symptoms are crippling. Kathleen can't watch television with her husband Hugh (72), because of the constant ringing in her ears and noise sensitivity. She can't concentrate and is struggling to cope with muscle pains and exhaustion.

Turn the clock back 35 years and Kathleen was a jolly, outgoing silver service waitress with a busy family life. Kathleen says: "My doctor prescribed Valium after I had panic attacks. My daughter had married at i9 and nine weeks later her husband was killed in an accident; it was hell watching what she went through. One night I went to bed and just started to shake uncontrollably. My doctor said Valium would 'pick me up'.

Kathleen has been on benzodiazepines ever since but has vowed to wean herself off. She has halved her dosage and hopes to be off them completely by autumn: "They've robbed me of my life. At times I've been suicidal. Last time I felt like ending it. I saw the faces of my two great grandsons and knew I had to go on for their sakes."

Benzodiazepines - more familiar to the public as Valium (diazepam), temazepam, Xanax and Ativan, among others - were introduced in the Seventies as a 'safer' replacement for barbiturates, a treatment for anxiety and insomnia which had been implicated in accidental suicides.

Back then, the drugs were said to be non-addictive. By 1979 there were 31 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines prescribed in the UK alone. But by 1988 the UK's Committee for Safety of Medicines was urging caution. It advised GPs that benzodiazepines should be prescribed for no more than two to four weeks and only for severe anxiety and not for depression, because they can increase the risk of suicide.

Although benzodiazepine prescribing has declined, there were still 10,768,910 prescriptions for the drugs in England in 2006. The All Party Parliamentary Drug Misuse Group is so concerned about the scale of benzodiazepine and other prescription drug misuse that a public inquiry is underway. Dr Brian Iddon. MP for Bolton South East and inquiry chairman, told Yours: "This problem should have gone away by now, but in fact it's worse. GPs are still not following the prescribing guidelines on this. I'm not disputing these drugs can be useful in certain circumstances... but in some areas they are still giving them out like Smarties."

Anne* (54) is one of the few UK benzodiazepine addicts who has received compensation. She was first prescribed Valium in 1978 when she was 24 and struggling to cope with three young children: " I was finding it hard to sleep. Whenever I asked my GP if I could come off them, he'd say, 'Don't worry, they're helping you'."

For 26 years, Anne obediently took a tablet every day. It was a chance telephone conversation with the surgery receptionist that alerted her something was wrong: "I'd rung to get antibiotics and was told I couldn't get a prescription over the phone. I asked, 'Why not? I've had tranquillisers over the phone for years'. The receptionist went quiet and said I needed to talk to the doctor."

Anne confronted her GP: "At first he told me he'd forgotten I was still being prescribed the drugs. Later he backtracked and told me I'd been given the best medical help I could get."

Horrified and ashamed, Anne kept her addiction secret - even from her husband: " I worried about what people would think. But I also felt angry and badly let down so I changed my GP and consulted a solicitor."

Anne's solicitor Caroline Moore says: "Although her doctors tried to say they had advised her of the addictive nature of the drugs, there were no notes to prove it. GPs know they have to keep proper notes and they hadn't. They'd never referred her for counselling and they just continued to make the repeat prescriptions. That amounted to gross negligence."

After three years of legal wrangling Anne's doctor finally offered her 5,000 compensation in an out-of court settlement but she remains disappointed because she never had an explanation: "I'm angry and I may still take this further."

Like Anne, Tess Higham (78), a former head teacher from Lancashire, has managed to conquer her addiction. She was first prescribed benzodiazepines when she was widowed in her 30s with four children aged between two and seven: "I went back to work but ended up being totally burnt-out. I was tired, irritable and couldn't sleep. My GP prescribed benzodiazepines. As my body got used to them the tablets began to depress my ability to cope and concentrate. It was like all my nerves were deadened."

In 1987 Tess told her GP she wanted to come off them and was admitted for a two-week hospital withdrawal programme: "The symptoms were terrible. My body tensed up and it was as if I had a vice around my head. But in other ways it was like a magic wand had been waved over me - I could concentrate for the first time in 21 years and was soon reading 12 books a week. I got to know my children all over again. On Mother's Day they sent me a card saying 'We're so glad we've got our real mum back'."

Heather Ashton, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology at Newcastle University, conducted a survey of GP practices in Newcastle in 2004. She found that each had around 180 long term users of benzodiazepines: "I suspect that 70 to 80 per cent are women over 50."

Despite the scale of the problem there is only one NHS-funded benzodiazepine withdrawal project, set up in 2005 by the Oldham Drug and Alcohol Service. It receives 55,000 a year compared to 1.67m for dealing with illegal drug users in the area. Barry Haslam (64), a former benzodiazepine addict who set up the Oldham project, says: "It's unfair that illegal drug users get more help than those trying to come off prescription drugs. There should be a levy on the drug industry to fund withdrawal projects like ours in every town."

Jim Dobbin, MP chairman of the parliamentary All Party Action Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, agrees: "The Department of Health should look at the Oldham project for benzodiazepine withdrawal and every Primary Care Trust should have a facility or support system in place. People think this was sorted out 20 years ago but nothing could be further from the truth."

* Name changed.

How to get help

Dr Jim Kennedy, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners prescribing committee says: I'd advise patients considering coming off benzos to go to their GP and ask for help in reducing their dosage. If they refuse, that could be considered unacceptable practice and I'd advise patients to find another GP and contact the Primary Care Trust."

For information go to www.benzo.org.uk or call the Council for Information on Tranquillisers and Antidepressants on 0151 9320102.

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