Sedation nation

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THE INCREASE in the use of sedatives and tranquillisers among Irish people, as reported in the third National Drug Prevalence Survey, is not a surprise. With the country in an established economic depression, high unemployment rates and increased pressure on personal finances, all socio-economic groups are, in the words of Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director of the Rutland Centre, “trying to keep the show on the road”.

What may come as a surprise to some is the high use of these drugs among professionals and senior managers. At 18 per cent the lifetime use of tranquillisers and sedatives by professionals and senior civil servants is almost on a par with the use of similar medications by people in receipt of social welfare payments.

Sedatives and tranquillisers, mainly from the benzodiazepine family of drugs, include medications such as Valium and Xanax. Anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac and Seroxat are prescribed for moderate to severe levels of depression. The use of anti-depressants was relatively stable at 5 per cent among 15 to 64 year-olds in 2011 compared with some 4 per cent in the previous 2007 survey. But there was a 40 per cent increase in the use of sedatives and tranquillisers among adults.

All of the drugs covered by the latest report from the National Advisory Committee on Drugs are prescription-only medications. However there is an established black market in psychoactive drugs, from the small-scale reselling of prescribed tablets by patients to larger operations operating on the back of the illegal bulk importation of drugs. Minister of State for Primary Care Alex White says the Department of Health was considering additional legislation to include an offence of unauthorised possession of psychoactive medication as well as tighter import and export controls.

The Minister must also consider tighter control on the prescribing and dispensing of these drugs. Guidelines on the prescription of benzodiazepines are explicit: in ordinary circumstances they are recommended for short term use only. There may be a legacy of individuals who have been taking tranquillisers since the 1970s and are now dependent on them but modern prescribing practices should mean that the percentage of older people reporting the long-term use of benzodiazepines reduces with time. The survey results mean the Department of Health must facilitate an increase in the availability of trained and properly regulated counselors for everyone, regardless of their means. Drugs are not the only answer to rising levels of economic stress.

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