Anti-Anxiety Drug Overdoses are on the Rise – Leaving Many Questions

When you hear about prescription drug overdoses, you tend to think about opioid painkillers. But you may be surprised to find out that deadly overdoses from anti-anxiety drugs are on the rise, leaving many mental health professionals wondering what is causing the increase.

A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows more Americans are overdosing on common benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications, such as Valium and Xanax. The quantity of prescriptions filled tripled between 1996 and 2013, and the number of overdoses quadrupled during the same time period.

Dr. Marcus Bachhuber of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who helped lead the study, said:

“Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time.”

Each year more than 5% of U.S adults fill a benzodiazepine prescription. These highly addictive drugs which treat anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia killed 23,000 people in 2013.

Photograph: National Institute on Drug Abuse

When benzodiazepines are abused or combined with other drugs and alcohol, they can depress the respiratory system sometimes fatally, Bachhuber explained.

For the new study Bachhuber’s team looked at large health surveys to find trends in the abuse of benzodiazepines. They wrote:

“The rate of overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased more than four-fold from 0.58 per 100,000 adults to 3.07 per 100,000 adults. However, this rate appeared to plateau after 2010. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased 67 percent, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million.”

The researchers also found a similarly large increase in the number of pills each person was prescribed.

Said Bachhuber:

“If we’re going to address the prescription drug crisis, we can’t just focus on opioids. We need to think more broadly about other drugs, like benzodiazepines.”

The study’s authors warn anti-anxiety drugs are being over-prescribed and suggest doctors investigate alternative drugs or treatments, such as talk therapy.

Read: 7 Natural Anti-Anxiety Herbs to Reduce Stress

We reported earlier that public health directors and academics are pressuring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to put a “black box” warning on benzodiazepines, the agency’s strongest warning, because of the drugs’ addictiveness and the danger posed by combining these drugs with other medications.


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Did a Common Anti-Anxiety Drug Play into Soundgarden Rocker’s Death?

In mid-May of 2017, fans of grunge music were shocked and heartbroken to hear of the death of Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell. His death was ruled a suicide, but Chris’ family says he never would have intentionally taken his life, and are blaming his use of the common anxiety drug, Ativan, for his state of mind at the time. [1]

Source: The Mercury News

The Seattle-based musician, 52, was found in his hotel room at the MGM Grand Detroit following his grunge band’s performance on May 18, 2017. He was discovered on the bathroom floor, with a red exercise cord around his neck. [1] [2]

Cornell’s wife, Vicky, said her husband was slurring his words when she spoke to him on the phone after his show. Chris told Vicky that he had taken more than his prescribed dose of the anti-anxiety drug, Ativan. [1]

Vicky asked security to check on Chris, and that’s when they found his body.

Since then, it has come out that Chris’ bodyguard gave him 2 Ativans before his death. [2]

Vicky said in a statement about Chris’ death:

“I know that he loved our children and he would not hurt them by intentionally taking his own life.” [2]

Source: The Mercury News

Kirk Pasich, the Cornell family’s attorney, said in a statement that the family is “disturbed” that anyone would think Chris knowingly and deliberately took his own life. Pasich said such conclusions shouldn’t be drawn before the toxicology test results came back. [1]

“Without the results of toxicology tests, we do not know what was going on with Chris — or if any substances contributed to his demise.

Chris, a recovering addict, had a prescription for Ativan and may have taken more Ativan than recommended dosages. The family believes that if Chris took his life, he did not know what he was doing, and that drugs or other substances may have affected his actions.”


Ativan is the brand name for lorazepam, a benzodiazepine. It is used to treat anxiety, drug withdrawal, seizures, and agoraphobia – which, according to Mayo Clinic, “is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.” [2]

The drug can have serious side effects, including worsening depression, unusual mood or behavior, and suicidal thoughts.

Ativan is intended for short-term use, and can be addictive. Addiction to benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” can be extremely difficult to break, and can be fatal. Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks successfully overcame an addiction to Klonopin.

Read: Link Established Between Benzodiazepines and Dementia

There are some other famous names in this class of drugs:

  • Valium, a.k.a. “Mother’s Little Helper.”
  • Restoril – A medication for temporary insomnia that became the “Date Rape Drug.”
  • Xanax – This drug may have at one time accounted for 60% of all hospital admissions for addiction.
  • Klonopin – Originally brought to the market in 1975 as a drug for seizure disorders that has since become “a prescription of choice for drug abusers from Hollywood to Wall Street.”
Source: Business Insider – The 10 most addictive drugs in the world, as of March 2016.

Asher Simon, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, who did not treat Chris Cornell, said:

“Yes, of course you should never take more than prescribed. But 1 or 2 additional pills is usually not a huge deal.” [3]

At least, not on its own. And a couple of pills wouldn’t cause someone to slur their words, according to the doctor.

It’s considerably more dangerous to combine Ativan with alcohol or other drugs, because the potential is there to develop poor judgement, and experience slowed breathing and heart rate, according to Simon.

Chris Cornell struggled with substance abuse for most of his life, and did admitted in 2009 that he did a stint in rehab for OxyContin addiction. He said he’d been sober since 2002. [2]

Opioids and benzodiazepines are an especially dangerous combination.

Here are a few comments from Dr. Drew. Tell us what you think of this.

A non-suicidal person wouldn’t likely become suicidal from taking Ativan, Simon said, adding:

“A lot of suicide comes at a time of acute anxiety, and if it treats the anxiety it can actually prevent those suicides. It is extremely unlikely to cause suicidal thinking in and of itself.” [3]

Read: Benzos, Antidepressants Linked to Mass Shootings

However, that’s not a given. Sometimes it works the other way.

“In someone who is already depressed and suicidal, it can impair their judgment—and if someone is intent on killing themselves, it can lower their inhibition and make them more likely to act on their impulses.”


[1] The Mercury News

[2] Variety


The Mercury News

Business Insider

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