Pharma drugs  Benzodiazepines

Exposed: National disgrace as a quarter of a million patients are turned into DRUG ADDICTS by their doctors

By Jonathan Gornall For The Daily Mail

27 March 2017

They are the forgotten victims of medical incompetence, the secret army of innocent addicts hundreds of thousands of them hooked on drugs prescribed by their doctors for pain, anxiety, sleeplessness or depression.

They had put their trust in the experts, only to descend into a nightmare of dependence on the very pills that were supposed to help them and then find themselves abandoned to their fate.

Today the Mail exposes the national disgrace of the hidden and ignored epidemic of addiction to prescription drugs, calling for the Government to set up a 24-hour helpline for people hooked on prescription drugs through no fault of their own.

People such as 62-year-old Janet Waterton. 

For 16 years this grandmother of two battled an addiction to benzodiazepines, tranquillisers prescribed by her doctors to treat hip pain and insomnia.

Benzodiazepines include brands such as Xanax and Restoril, and diazepam, formerly known as Valium, the infamous Mother's Little Helpers that 'anaesthetised' a generation of British housewives in the Sixties and Seventies.

They are widely prescribed but are so addictive that doctors have been told repeatedly that patients should not be on them for more than four weeks.

Janet tried to wean herself off the pills but suffered severe withdrawal symptoms. But the drugs themselves left her feeling like a zombie and there are whole chunks of her life she simply doesn't remember.

In desperation and in the absence of any help from the health service she and her husband, a mechanic, cashed in their Isas to pay for her to go into a drugs detox clinic, even though the NHS had effectively been responsible for her needing to be there in the first place.

She was strip-searched on admission and put in a dormitory with three heroin addicts. 

'It was hell there were constant fights, prostitutes having sex in the corridor, another woman self-harming I wondered if I'd survive,' she recalls.

As she points out in the full version of her story told on the next page, all she'd ever done was take the benzodiazepines that her doctor had prescribed.

Shocking new figures from the University of Roehampton, published exclusively in the Mail today, suggest that as many as a quarter of a million people, like Janet, have been left on tranquillisers including diazepam for months or even years. 

'This is a scandal for which there can be no excuse,' says Dr James Davies, the lead researcher.

And the longer you are on benzodiazepines, the tougher withdrawal will be, with symptoms from sleeplessness, agitation, blurred vision and feelings like electric shocks in the limbs, to confusion, hallucinations, even epileptic fits.

But the problem is not just tranquillisers. Dr Davies also found that a third of long-term users of antidepressants, an astonishing 800,000 people who have been on the drugs for longer than two years, 'have no clear clinical indication for [them] in other words, they shouldn't be on this medication'.

Even antidepressants, while not regarded as addictive, can cause crippling withdrawal effects, such as anxiety, mood swings, paranoid delusions, hallucinations and ironically depression.

And 'the longer you are on antidepressants, the worse and more protracted the withdrawal will be,' says Dr Davies.

But the consequences of staying on drugs such as benzodiazepines can be harrowing, too.

They can lead to sleepiness, unsteadiness, problems with memory and concentration, depression and anxiety. 

These side-effects can be mistaken for signs that the patient's original problem is getting worse, so the dose is actually increased.

But these are not the only drugs behind the hidden epidemic of prescription pill dependence.

Janet tried to wean herself off the pills but suffered severe withdrawal symptoms

Nearly 13 million people in the UK are prescribed opioid painkillers such as codeine, tramadol and fentanyl. These medicines are derived from opium or chemical equivalents and are highly addictive.

Shockingly, no one knows how many people might be taking opioid painkillers unnecessarily. 

But the cost to the NHS will be high. The over-prescription of tranquillisers and antidepressants identified by Dr Davies is costing the NHS 60 million a year.

And if the estimated proportion of over-prescription of antidepressants and tranquillisers is anything to go by, the total amount squandered on these drugs and opioids tops 160 million.

But the cost to patients and their families is incalculable, with patients caught in a trap of their doctors' making staying on the drugs can leave them unable to function normally, yet they can't come off the drugs because of the terrible withdrawal effects.

And worryingly, these drugs are being shelled out in record amounts opioid prescriptions alone shot up from three million to 23 million between 1991 and 2014 according to the National Treatment Agency. Prescriptions for antidepressants have risen by over 500 per cent since 1992.

It must be stressed that these pills can, and do, help countless thousands of patients and of course, not everyone who takes any of these drugs ends up dependent upon them.

But for those who do, support is virtually non-existent: patients are left to fend for themselves, coping with a wide range of debilitating side-effects or fighting to withdraw with little or no support unlike those who abuse illegal drugs.

Almost 290,000 people were treated by addiction services around the country last year the vast majority were using illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. 

If the estimated proportion of over-prescription of antidepressants and tranquillisers is anything to go by, the total amount squandered on these drugs and opioids tops 160 million 

Only 5,800 (2 per cent) were seeking help with an addiction to prescription opioids only, according to figures from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System.

This is not, say experts, because only a few people have problems as the Government maintains but because these services are desperately unsuitable for them, as Janet Waterton found.

'Addiction services are funded to deal primarily with heroin, cocaine and alcohol problems,' says Dr Yasir Abbasi, clinical director of addiction services at Mersey Care NHS Trust and a member of the Opioid Painkiller Dependency Alliance, a group of medical professionals working in this area.

'The kind of patient I see is a working mother who had breast cancer five years ago and is still on morphine. She finds it impossible to go to a drug centre and sit next to a heroin addict.'

When we asked the Department of Health why the innocently addicted are denied the same level of support provided to users of illicit drugs, a spokesman told us there were 'already a variety of options for people to seek help for addiction to prescription drugs', including GPs, NHS 111, the FRANK confidential drugs helpline and NHS Choices.

Since 2013, the spokesman added, 'local authorities are responsible for providing public health services, including the help for addiction that their communities need'.

But while local authorities spend 800 million a year on addiction services, their chief focus is on people who abuse illegal drugs.

And even if middle-class housewives addicted to prescription tranquillisers were prepared to visit drug and alcohol addiction treatment centres, they would struggle to find any with the capacity to help them, says Professor Colin Drummond, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

'Prescription drug dependence is the Cinderella of addiction,' he says. 

'Drug addiction treatment services have been directed by the Government to prioritise treatment for illegal drugs.'

Over the past year, he says, funding to addiction services has been slashed by 30 per cent 'and people dependent on prescription drugs have been pushed further down the priority list'.

There are some specialist services for people dependent on prescription drugs, but they are few and far between and, run by small charities, can only help tiny numbers in their local areas.

Last year the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence identified eight such organisations in the whole of the UK offering withdrawal services, covering only 'a small fraction of the country'.

For a sense of their scale, one such provider, One Recovery, funded by Oldham Council, is currently helping 30 people in the town withdraw from prescription drugs. 

That tiny charities have to sort out the misery created by doctors is a disgrace. 

This is why today the Mail is backing a plea to the Government issued by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society and 16 other leading medical organisations and patient groups for a national 24-hour helpline for people innocently hooked on prescription drugs.

The signatories are also calling for the helpline to be backed up by dedicated national support services for victims and better guidance for GPs and others on how to help patients withdraw.

Even when it's done properly, withdrawal from benzodiazepines can take 'months or years', says the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

Withdrawal should be done gradually, and only with proper support, adds Stephen Buckley, Mind's spokesperson on mental health problems and their treatments.

'We hear from lots of people who have been on antidepressants for a long time and want to come off them but with limited time and money and a huge number of patients to see, not every GP is set up to help,' he says.

Indeed, while some GPs are aware of side-effects and withdrawal effects, and understand, for example, the importance of slowly reducing the dose, 'others deny that the drugs can cause these problems, or insist on rapid tapers which can cause great harm to patients', according to a report on the helpline proposal presented to the Government last year.

GPs point to a lack of specialist services to which they can refer patients.

This makes the Government's response to the BMA's appeal for a helpline all the more astonishing.

Over the past year funding to addiction services has been slashed by 30 per cent 'and people dependent on prescription drugs have been pushed further down the priority list'

In a letter seen by the Mail, Nicola Blackwood, under-secretary of state for public health, suggests 'people who feel they might be dependent on either prescribed or over-the-counter medicines should seek help from their GP'.

'I accept that this may not always be straightforward,' Blackwood added. 'However, help and advice is also available from. . . the 111 helpline or the online NHS Choices service.'

Clearly, these options are a world away from the dedicated services campaigners say are vital.

Undeterred, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence is today, too, calling for the Government to set up a helpline.

'Long-term users of antidepressants, tranquillisers and opioid painkillers can suffer devastating effects when they try to withdraw, often leading to years of unnecessary suffering and disability,' says Paul Flynn MP, chair of the APPG. 

'And yet unlike illicit drugs there are hardly any dedicated services to support them.'

The Mail is also backing a call by the parliamentary group for an urgent inquiry to examine the extent and causes of the over-prescribing problem and the lack of support services available to patients.

Dr Abassi believes that 'many' of the 12 to 13 million people prescribed benzodiazepines every year are dependent
Dr Abassi believes that 'many' of the 12 to 13 million people prescribed benzodiazepines every year are dependent

What is so shocking is that with benzodiazepines in particular, for 30 years doctors have been specifically warned about the risks of long term use. 

And yet 16 million prescriptions have been handed out for these drugs for weeks, months and even years.

Another key concern is finding out just how many people are hooked on prescription pills such as opioid painkillers. 

'Nobody has any real idea of the numbers,' says Harry Shapiro, the director of online information service DrugWise.

Dr Abassi believes that 'many' of the 12 to 13 million people prescribed these every year are dependent. 

'But because there is no specific help available, we believe a lot more people are just not coming forward.'

An inquiry into the prescription of these drugs 'is decades overdue', says longtime campaigner, Barry Haslam, an accountant from Oldham who lost a decade of his life to tranquillisers and painkillers prescribed for anxiety (he now runs the information website,

'I cannot thank the Daily Mail enough for publicly backing the call for a helpline and an inquiry,' he says.

'This scandal has been swept under the carpet for decades by governments terrified of taking the lid off a Pandora's box. 

'In the process they have ignored the suffering of innocent patients who've only taken these drugs as directed by their doctors.'

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Janet Waterton, 62, a retired medical records clerk, lives with her husband Edgar, 66, a retired mechanic, in Bude, Cornwall.

Janet spent 16 years battling her dependency on prescription pills.

I can still remember the deep shame and humiliation I felt when I was asked to stand up and say: 'My name's Janet and I'm a drug addict.'

I'd been admitted to a detox unit after becoming dependent on drugs prescribed for hip pain, but in the clinic I was surrounded by heroin addicts.

All I'd ever done was take the benzodiazepines my doctor prescribed I'd done nothing illegal and becoming dependent on them was never a choice. I'd just trusted my doctors.

Janet Waterton (pictured) says she can still remember the humiliation she felt when she was asked to stand up and say: 'My name's Janet and I'm a drug addict'

Yet I was strip-searched on admission and wasn't allowed newspapers or magazines. They put me in a dormitory with three heroin addicts. 

At the unit I was brutally cold-turkeyed off diazepam (the generic version of Valium) in just two weeks.

I was the only person with a prescription drug dependency and the doctors had little experience of benzo withdrawal. 

One said he'd rather treat ten heroin addicts than one person like me as he just didn't know what the outcome would be.

The withdrawal symptoms were horrendous feelings like electric shocks in my brain, pins and needles in my face, panic attacks, shaking and sweating. 

I never slept, and my legs went into spasm so I could hardly walk. I was a wreck.

Not only was I the only person at the unit on prescription drugs, but ironically I was one of very few paying for the privilege most of the other patients were ex-offenders funded by the NHS.

My husband and I cashed in our ISAs to pay the bill, though NHS doctors were responsible for me being there.

When Janet was admitted to a detox unit, she was the only person with a prescription drug dependency and the doctors had little experience of benzo withdrawal

My nightmare had begun with a simple prescription for clonazepam, a benzodiazepine in 1992 my doctor said it was a nerve blocker that might help my hip pain.

Up until then I'd always been full of beans and never suffered from depression, but soon I became depressed and started to sleep a lot. 

After eight years I wanted to wean myself off the drugs because the pain had gone, but when I started cutting back, within hours I had withdrawal symptoms.

One day my husband found me crouched and shaking in a corner. When he phoned NHS Direct, they said I had classic withdrawal symptoms and told me to contact my doctor who said I should stay on the drugs.

Every time I tried to wean myself off even by small amounts I had more withdrawal symptoms. That's how I found myself in the detox unit.

Two years after my detox I started suffering from panic attacks and sleeping problems prescription sleeping pills didn't help and a locum psychiatrist prescribed benzos.

And that was it, I was back on them again this time for five years. The pills did nothing for my anxiety but left me feeling like a zombie.

My GP tried to refer me for help, but there was nothing. I had a home visit from a psychologist who said I'd been damaged by the drugs, but I never saw him again. 

I was sent to a drug and alcohol dependency service, but the person I was to see didn't turn up.

I used to call Frank, the drugs helpline, and just sob because I felt so isolated, but they're not geared up for prescription drug problems.

My health deteriorated and I lost three stone, going down to seven stone. I often blacked out, so I would lie in bed all day I had to stop work.

I had panic attacks and could only sleep two hours at a time.

My husband became so desperate that in 2010 he used his pension lump sum to pay 22,000 for another detox.

Janet used to call Frank, the drugs helpline, and just sob because she felt so isolated, but they were not geared up for prescription drug problems

If anything, this was worse than the first, but it worked, and six years later, I'm still off the drugs.

But when I look back I can't remember big chunks of my life they are lost to benzos.

After spending my husband's pension on my treatment we were so broke I rang the health authority to see if we could recover some of the costs. They said I needed a lawyer.

The case took four years, and in 2015 I got 200,000 in an out-of-court settlement for the drugs having been prescribed to me a second time.

Considering what my family's been through, it's not a lot of money. And these drugs have left me permanently damaged: my nerves tingle and burn. 

I never get more than four hours' unbroken sleep and still don't have the concentration to read a book. 

I hope one day I will feel normal, but I just don't know.


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