Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster
Dr Des Spence, a GP in Glasgow, recently wrote the following words in the British Journal of General Practice. He is referring to the public health disaster of drugs of dependence – benzodiazepines, antidepressants and painkillers. It seems no lessons have been learned from the Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster which started in the 1960s and continues even today. It also seems that there is no prospect of any positive Government action being taken to help patients wean themselves off these widely prescribed drugs which can be hugely damaging to health, often causing serious disabilities.
“I struggle to put into words the sense of shame this has brought our profession. It is a disgrace, a scandal, and the biggest public health issue of our time, an iatrogenic infection harming millions. What is happening is wrong and wholly preventable. There is a need for a public inquiry and an urgent need to stem the relentless rise of dependence-forming medications in the UK.” Des Spence, GP, Glasgow http://bjgp.org/content/67/661/363
Benzodiazepines cause damage to the brain and central nervous system. They also cause psychiatric problems, memory impairment and are strongly associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and cancer. Many thousands of patients are consuming these drugs and are unlikely to be aware that many of their symptoms of ill-health are due to benzodiazepines. Those who develop dementia are unlikely to be told the drug may have been a factor. Many who withdraw go through unimaginable suffering and some are left permanently brain damaged (see personal accounts in this document). Such brain damage will not be diagnosed as attributable to the drugs. Instead, patients left with serious disabilities are told their symptoms are attributable to “depression”or “anxiety” or some other mental health problem. Withdrawal can be very severe and some of those affected do commit suicide. Some of us have contemplated it or have contacted Dignitas in Switzerland in the vain hope they might consider ending our lives for us. Some of us have also had our whole lives destroyed. A complete waste of human potential and of course a considerable burden on the NHS and benefits system.
The UK Department of Health continues to obscure the issue by referring to us as drug misusers and media articles still use the word “addiction” which is incorrect. This feeds doctors’ false beliefs’ that problems with these drugs are down to the patients “addictive personalities” and that failure to withdraw is lack of willpower. Some patients are forced off their drugs by their GPs and then blamed for turning to the internet for an alternative supply. There is no methadone equivalent for us, in fact there is nothing for us. We are victims in the same way as those of other medical disasters such as the Thalidomide scandal. In fact had Thalidomide not happened, the Benzodiazepine Disaster might not have been swept under the carpet in the way that it has. It has recently emerged that the birth defects caused by sodium valproate were known about 40 years ago but not communicated to patients in case it might cause them undue anxiety. Most patients today are still not warned of the many dangers associated with benzodiazepines. Perhaps doctors think that the prospect of developing Alzheimer’s might cause patients some anxiety and so they keep quiet. Most of us would argue that there was no informed consent when we were first prescribed these drugs and no attempt to keep us informed as the years rolled by.
Those of us who have withdrawn from benzodiazepines and have developed brain and central nervous system damage want our doctors to be aware that this can happen, to stop disbelieving us and to support us without doing us further chemical harm by prescribing more drugs. Everyone in withdrawal deserves help and support and to be given accurate information. This quite simply does not exist in most parts of the country and so we have to turn to the online support groups run by fellow victims, many of whom are unwell. Some of us require 24/7 care. That should be paid for by the state. An independent inquiry needs to happen so that the reasons for this disaster can be understood. The British Medical Association has called for a national helpline but this will more than likely be rejected by the Department of Health as it continues to claim there is insufficient evidence of potential demand. In any case. a helpline is in any case a vastly inadequate solution for a major public health disaster. Strangely enough, there is a helpline available for those who do have addiction problems, including those addicted to illegal drugs. We are not in that category.
Barry Haslam, former chair of Oldham Tranx, has campaigned for over 30 years despite being brain damaged from benzodiazepines. He has scheduled a meeting with Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester when he will discuss the possibilities for setting up appropriate services across the region along the same lines as those which already exist in Oldham. He will also discuss the possibility of an independent public inquiry.
In the meantime, we, the victims of benzodiazepines, urgently request that you investigate the reasons for the lack of services for those wishing to withdraw from these toxic prescription drugs and why were they prescribed to millions of unsuspecting patients despite the high risks of dependency being known about. As long ago as 1988, the Committee on Safety of Medicines issued guidance to doctors that benzodiazepines should only be prescribed for a matter of a few weeks. Why were these guideline ignored for so long and why are they still being ignored by some GPs, putting patients’ health at risk?
In this document, we have tried to provide as much relevant information as possible including links to previous TV documentaries, newspaper articles, websites as well as more recent developments in our campaign. We have also written individual letters, also contained in this document, in which we attempt to describe how our lives have been seriously damaged or destroyed by these drugs. Many victims are afraid to be identified, or are too unwell or traumatised to articulate their thoughts. We feel just as abused as any other victims of abuse, we feel violated, betrayed and we are angry. We trusted our doctors implicitly, having no idea they would betray us in this way.
Please join our Facebook page specifically set up to inform journalists. There you can interact with some of the victims.
We have many questions.
(1) Why have appropriate support services never been set up throughout the UK to help those rendered chemically dependent by their GPs get off these drugs?
(2) Why has the example of the Oldham services not been replicated? Why have small charities been left to pick up the pieces?
(3) Why do those affected have to turn to online support groups in the absence of any effective NHS support? Why are these groups run by victims, with no public funding to support them?
(4) Why was the NHS withdrawal clinic run by Professor Heather Ashton, Newcastle University, closed down and never replaced?
(5) Why was her research application to conduct further research turned down by the Medical Research Council?
(6) Why is Government funding focussed on (illegal) drug and alcohol addiction and not on prescribed drug dependence? Is this a deliberate diversion?
(7) Why has research not been conducted into the possibilities of brain damage from these drugs?
(8) Why are GPs still in 2017 seemingly ignorant about the many terrible effects of these drugs or do they simply prefer to deny them?
(9) Why are patients increasingly being diagnosed with “Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms”, a psychiatric diagnostic label, when they are clearly suffering from neurological damage from drugs of dependence? Why is this diagnostic label now being heavily promoted in the medical journals and conferences?
(10) How many patients are suffering from brain damage and neurological damage as a result of consuming drugs of dependence?
(11) Have antidepressants just been used to cover the damage done by benzodiazepines? How many patients have been switched from one drug of dependence to another drug of dependence?
Benzodiazepines were first prescribed in the 1960s. Their dependency forming and brain damaging properties have been known for decades, TV documentaries have been made, victims have campaigned and where are we now? People are still suffering horrendously and needlessly. A class action was thrown out of court in the 1990s. It was costing too much in legal aid. GPs responded by increasing prescribing rates. How astonishing. An All Party Parliamentary Group was established but its recommendations were ignored by the Department of Health. There is extensive documentary evidence of all this historical activity, gathered by committed individuals into a single website.
Please see our collective efforts on this blog including testimonies written in letter form to journalists.
Barry, Fiona and Claire.