Hidden world of tranquilliser addicts


Sunday, 13 May, 2001, 01:39 GMT 02:39 UK

More than a million adults in Britain are hooked on drugs prescribed for them by their GPs, a BBC documentary reveals.

Benzodiazepines, better known as tranquillisers like diazepam and temazepam, are being prescribed in their millions to patients every year.

This is despite repeated warnings issued to doctors about the risks of side effects and dependence.

Strict guidelines about the prescribing of benzodiazepine tranquillisers, issued to all GPs in 1988, have been routinely ignored, BBC One's Panorama has found.

Patients are often kept in ignorance of the fact that the drugs they are being prescribed are known to cause dependence if used beyond the recommended four-week maximum.

Withdrawal can be as painful and as prolonged as that experienced by heroin addicts who try to stop taking the drug.

Long-term problems

Susan Hyatt, from Watford, was prescribed the benzodiazepine, lorazepam, for anxiety three years ago.

She has been slowly coming off the drug over the last 12 months, but every time she cuts down, her symptoms are worse than the original anxiety.

She says: "I have physical symptoms which are the palpitations, hot and cold sweats, shaking, trembling to the psychological symptoms which is I think that I am going to lose it, I think I am going crazy."

Tales of tranquilliser addiction are nothing new.

Back in the early 1980s the hugely popular consumer programme, That's Life, was flooded with letters from viewers complaining about the problems they had encountered with benzodiazepine tranquillisers.

The show's host, Esther Rantzen, says: "This wasn't just, it makes you feel slightly nauseous, this was, these symptoms are wrecking my life, making me feel as if I'm going out of my mind, making my family think that I'm going out of my mind."

In 1988 the government's Committee on the Safety of Medicines finally tried to make doctors change their ways.

Clear prescribing guidelines were sent to every GP in the country.

They stated that benzodiazepines should not be prescribed for longer than four weeks, should be given in the lowest possible dose, and should not be used to treat depression.

However, 13 years on, the Department of Health could not tell Panorama how many patients have been on drugs for longer than the recommended four weeks.

Professor Louis Appleby, the government's Mental Health Czar, admits there is a problem with GP's adhering to the guidelines.

He says: "Prescribing practice changes slowly and I suppose that's one of the lessons of this whole disaster."

Reporter Shelley Jofre talks to a number of long-term users in the programme.

These range from a teenager prescribed two different benzodiazepines over the last four years, to an 86-year-old who has been using temazepam for over 30 years non-stop.

Jim Kennedy, from the Royal College of General Practitioners, admits there is still a significant continuing problem.

He says: "(We) continue to raise awareness of this issue and reduce prescribing of these drugs to appropriate use, but it is a very long struggle."

But across the country, counselling and support services are stretched to the limit.

Pam Armstrong runs Counselling and Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction.

However, with no government funding they can only afford to operate their helpline for a few hours a day.

She says: "We could work all the hours we could stay open, and the phone rings non-stop. There's no doubt there's a demand.

"But I don't know really, there just doesn't seem to be the recognition by the government that would fund us."