Rise in deaths from cocktails of anti-anxiety drugs and alcohol

Overdose deaths and deaths indirectly attributed to drug use may be linked to mental health

There has been a considerable increase in the number of deaths involving cocktails of anti-anxiety drugs and alcohol, according to figures released today.

The figures relate to 2011 and are from the Health Research Board’s (HRB) National Drug-Related Deaths Index, which provides the latest data about the nature and extent of premature death due to problem drug and alcohol use in Ireland.

More than half of overdose deaths were from polydrug use, which refers to the taking of two or more drugs at the same time. There was a 28 per cent increase in the number of overdose deaths as a result of polydrug use, from 168 in 2010 to 215 in 2011.

The drugs most implicated in polydrug use were alcohol, methadone, antidepressants and benzodiazepines, which are sedatives used in the treatment of anxiety. Benzodiazepines were implicated in 166 deaths – an increase of 61 per cent on the 2010 figure of 103 deaths.


'Standout' issue
HRB senior researcher Suzi Lyons said the increase in polydrug use deaths was the "standout" issue.

“What is concerning is the big increase in polydrug overdose deaths, which correlate with the increase in deaths from prescription medication such as benzodiazepines, methadone and antidepressants – all of which are the major drugs implicated in the polydrug overdoses,” she said.

“Especially when you talk about the benzodiazepines, which are sedative drugs, they affect your respiratory system. Our data shows it’s the combination together that can be fatal. Alone, the drug might not have been fatal, especially when you are talking about prescription medications.”

The number of drug-related deaths in Ireland increased from 597 in 2010 to 607 in 2011. Almost two-thirds of these deaths were men and the median age for those who died was 39. Of these deaths, 365 were due to overdose, up from 338 in 2010. The remaining 242 were deaths that may be indirectly attributed to drug use. There were 17 fewer of these deaths in 2011 than in 2010.

Of these, 117 were trauma deaths, down from 122 in 2010. In this category, the most common cause of death was by hanging, at 56 per cent, followed by road traffic collisions, at 12 per cent.

Ms Lyons said the “large proportions” of hangings in trauma deaths, coupled with the “frequency” of benzodiazepines and anti-depressant medication in the overdose deaths, indicated that overdose deaths and the deaths indirectly attributed to drug use could be linked to both mental health issues and problem drug use.

“This is called dual diagnosis, which is when a person has both an addiction and a mental health issue, and it is very common within the group the National Drug-Related Deaths Index deals with. Our research shows they have higher levels of mental health issues,” she said.

“Of the group of traumatic deaths, where the majority were hangings, the profile was different. The median age was only 29 years and 86 per cent were men, so that very much fits the profile if you look at the literature on suicide in Ireland.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter