Is this Australia’s silent drug epidemic?
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This special WYZA® report investigates Australia’s prescription drug addiction.
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Australians of all ages are becoming dependent and addicted to prescription medications at an alarming rate. This special WYZA® report investigates Australia’s prescription drug addiction.
The latest figures from the Australian Drug Foundation show that 2.1 million people or 11.4% of Australians (aged 14 or older) admitted to misusing a prescribed pharmaceutical
It may be a surprise to learn that 61-year-old grandfather, Les Banton, from Botany NSW, is a role model and mentor for people suffering addiction. He is an administrator of group Sydney Recovery, but the advice he now gives, he never received himself during his own struggle with addiction to prescription drugs.
In 2001 just after the GST was first introduced, Banton’s multimillion-dollar chain of boutiques went bust. The tumultuous fall of his business left him broke and downbeat. Soon after, his partner left him and he moved from his million-dollar house with swimming pool and water views to simpler accommodation.
It was then that Banton’s mental health took a turn for the worse and by 2002 he was diagnosed with clinical depression. Not long after that he attempted to take his own life. Thankfully he survived, but in the years after, Banton became dependent on the prescription drugs that were meant to keep him well – a serious issue that is all too prevalent in Australia today.
“After I attempted suicide, the guys from the psych ward took one look at me and I was admitted to Fremantle hospital for six weeks for depression. When I came out they gave me a bag of drugs,” says Banton.
“Naturally I abused those pills they gave me. I was abusing an anti-depressant called Prothiaden which I didn’t know at the time could have killed me. I was also taking 1000-1500 mg of Seroquel (an antipsychotic) a day and I was taking another anti-depressant called Serepax like hundreds and thousands,” he adds.
Banton’s prescription drug abuse went on for 12 months and during that time he packed on weight, going from 75kg to 120kg, which he later found out was a side effect of taking Seroquel. “I’d never been 120kg in my life,” he says.
Les Banton with his supportive partner
Realising he had a serious problem, Banton made repeat visits to his doctors for help only to be given more drugs. One of his doctors, concerned that his abuse of Prothiaden would kill him, simply gave him a prescription for another anti-depressant Effexor XR.
“In all that time I was under the supervision of psychiatrists there was no real guidance. All they’d say is 'well you abused those a little bit, but here’s another script,”’ says Banton.
A dangerous dependency
When Banton tried to stop his prescription medications his life spiralled further out of control. He became addicted to crystal methamphetamine, the drug commonly known on the street as ice and other drugs.
Ice can cause paranoia and hallucinations. This is called methamphetamine psychosis.
He then turned to crime to pay for his habit and ended up spending two years in prison for fraud. In reflection, Banton points his finger squarely at the prescription drugs which he says distorted his thoughts and made him unhinged.
“My mindset was so off, my thought processes were so disrupted by the prescription drugs that I’ d been taking that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a dependency on them and when I came off I needed to replace them with something,” says Banton.
Banton who is now drug free and in recovery believes he should never have been given some of his medications. Instead he believes his mental health issues could have been better managed by other means.
“I know there are some mental health issues like schizophrenia and bipolar where the patients need to be on medication all their lives and that’s ok, but some other mental health issues shouldn’t be medicated. I know people who have been on anti-depressants for more than ten years. When do the doctors ever revaluate them? When do they ever get well? And what are the drugs doing to them for all that time?” asks Banton.
Banton helping out at the Sydney Recovery Walk in 2015
Australia’s prescription drugs problem
This grandfather's experience with prescription drug dependency is not unusual. Many Australians have similar stories to tell about their addictions or dependencies and that number is growing.
The two most commonly misused drug types in Australia are analgesics and benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines like Valium, Serepax, Xanax and Temazepam are drugs used to treat the symptoms of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Analgesics such as oxycodone are mainly prescribed for pain relief.
Professor Ann Roche, Director at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University says Australia is seeing an increase in prescriptions for misused prescription drugs, especially opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl that are increasingly prescribed for non-cancer pain.
“There has been an exponential increase in prescribed drugs especially the opioids and this trend is echoing a similar pattern in the United States and Canada. We’ve also seen increases in deaths and presentations of overdoses to hospitals,” says Roche.
Latest figures at the Australian Drug Foundation show that in 2013, 2.1 million people or 11.4 per cent of Australians aged 14 or older admitted to misusing a prescribed pharmaceutical.
Among some health professionals there is now a real fear that Australia is going the same way as the United States in which the death rate from prescribed opioids now outstrips deaths from any illicit drugs combined.
Meditation and regular exercise may be a good alternative to pain medication
Certainly when it comes to opioids like oxycodone, a drug in the same group of drugs as heroin which many misusers take to feel its euphoric-like effects, the historical statistics are alarming.
The amount of oxycodone prescribed by doctors increased from 95.1kg in 1999 to 1270.7 kg in 2008, which represents a 13-fold increase. In Australia between 2001-2011 there were 806 oxycodone-related deaths.
Australians aged 50 years and older are of particular risk of developing a dependency on prescription medications like oxycodone and fentanyl for a number of reasons Roche says.
“Senior Australians may not be able to metabolise the drugs effectively and then go onto take another dose. They may also beon multiple medications that increase their risk of dependency. For example, if they are taking opioids but they are also taking benzodiazepines, both of these classes of drugs are central nervous system depressants and can have an additive effect,” says Roche.
Why do we have a problem?
Roche says there are a few reasons for the increase in prescribed medications that are being misused and these include “an aggressive push by some of the pharmaceutical companies within the last decade to get prescribers to prescribe more medications, active ‘doctor shopping’ by some patients who go to multiple GPs for repeat scripts for the same medications and a trend towards quicker release rates for hospital admissions without adequate patient care.”
In regards to the pharmaceutical companies, some of which have subsequently been fined millions of dollars for misleading prescribers and patients, Roche says “their main argument in the last decade has been that there was no propensity for the development of addiction in patients – which is clearly is not the case,” she says.
Roche explains how short hospital stays with patients often being released within 24 hours has often meant that patients are released with large amounts of medication and repeat scripts (as Les Banton was) but without receiving the appropriate ongoing care and guidance on being discharged.
“People go back to their GPs and get their scripts filled without any warnings and without any awareness on the part of prescribers that these drugs can produce a dependence and people can become tolerant very quickly,” says Roche. What’ s even more alarming is that many prescription drugs may not even be working to help patients with their medical conditions.
“What’s interesting with the studies on opioids is that there has been research to show that these drugs are actually not very good in dealing with chronic pain and their effectiveness wears off after just a matter of weeks,” Roche says.
What can be done?
There is growing awareness among prescribers about the dangers of prescription drugs, but many would argue that prescriber education is not enough and that many more patients will suffer prescription drug dependency if firmer patient safeguards are not instigated.
One possible option to stop doctor shopping is a federal government plan for a real-time prescription monitoring system (RTPM) where doctors can easily check a computer database to see what prescriptions patients have received for prescription drugs. But this plan has yet to be rolled out nationally because it needs each state to approve and then implement it individually.
In the meantime, Roche recommends continuing professional development of prescribers to better educate them about the safer prescribing of medication and the public about the dangers of prescription drugs.
For prescribers, professional development includes talking to GPs and prescribers about prescribing smaller amounts of the potentially harmful drugs and then monitoring and checking up on patients to see that they aren’t developing signs of dependency.
“There are also non-opioid drugs which may be prescribed,” says Roche. “In regards to chronic pain, it may be that opioid-based medications are not necessarily required and that there is a greater dependence on physical therapies such as mindfulness and meditation to manage chronic pain,” she says.
Here are other suggestions to try to cope with anxiety, stress and insomnia
If you suspect you or someone you know might have a dependency on prescription medications speak to your doctor.
You can also call Family Drug Support: 1300 368 186
For support with depression, anxiety and related disorders visit their website or call: 1300 22 4636
To join and share your experiences with others recovering from addiction from anywhere in Australia you can join Sydney Recovery.
Do you think prescription medicines should have larger warning labels? Join the conversation below.