Valley of the ex-dolls

Prescribed tranquillisers are far more toxic, more addictive and kill more people in the UK than all the illegal class A drugs put together. Millions of UK citizens have been left permanently brain-damaged or physically disabled as a result of involuntary addiction (WDDTY, vol 12 no 3).

While the media gives endless publicity to the relatively few victims of drugs such as ecstasy and crack, they hardly ever report on the real horrors of benzodiazepine damage. The public, therefore, knows almost nothing about their true dangers. This leaves doctors free to prescribe these harmful drugs with total impunity.

In 1980, the Committee on Safety of Medicines recommended that benzodiazepines should not be taken for longer than four months. This was followed by guidelines, issued in 1988, restricting prescribing to a maximum of two to four weeks. Patient-led groups in the early 1980s also urged long-term addicts to come off these drugs.

When patients came to realise the true extent of the permanent damage caused by these drugs, a group litigation case began. Some 20,000 involuntary addicts were willing to join forces to be heard.

After spending over £30 m on legal aid, the British government withdrew all further funding. The medical profession closed ranks to defend itself as well as the pharmaceutical companies. Soon after, all hospital places, helplines and funding to help prescribed addicts were shut down.

There is now virtually no support system anywhere in the UK to help tranquilliser addicts come off, in spite of the fact that long-term users can experience serious illnesses during acute withdrawal. These include epileptic fits, withdrawal psychosis, breathing difficulties and intense pain (Ann Fr Anesth Reanim, 1987; 6: 525-7; JAMA, 1977; 237: 36-8; BMJ, 1984; 288: 1135-40). Patients who complain of withdrawal symptoms are often ‘struck off’ (J R Coll Gen Pract, 1983; 33: 608).

Under UK law, anyone who is ill is entitled to free healthcare – unless he is a tranquilliser patient. Huge numbers of tranquilliser patients receive no basic care of any kind. Thousands of ex-users die every year, dumped by their doctors and refused all help.

Anecdotal evidence from well-known tranquilliser organisations suggests that this is happening to around 90 per cent of the UK’s two million benzodiazepine patients. Even those with cancer or cardiac problems often cannot get treatment.

GPs are the gatekeepers of all medical services and disability benefits. As such, it sometimes seems as if, over a period of time, they have devised certain methods of dealing with tranquilliser patients based on a steadfast belief that these drugs do no lasting harm. I have heard that some GPs have written on their notes ‘long-term litigation against benzo manufacturers’ coupled with a diagnosis of ‘chronic anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia’ or similar remarks.

This acts as a coded warning to all other doctors, who will diagnose the patient’s illness as psychosomatic and, privately, that this patient is what is termed in the medical profession as a ‘heartsink’ – a hypochondriac.

Anecdotal reports show that getting any tests done is an uphill struggle. Samples go missing. GP test results come up negative while private tests have shown serious illnesses. GPs have also been known to refuse to put private test results on patients’ files. Most patients receive no health checks and no monitoring, and housebound patients rarely get home visits.

Anyone phoning up with chest pains is automatically diagnosed as having a panic attack. If pushed, the GP will arrange a chest x-ray, knowing nothing will show up, to ‘prove’ his point. One woman with continual chest pains had been strongly recommended by accident and emergency doctors to get a referral to a cardiologist – she is still waiting for help 10 years on. Another woman with a breast lump waited two years for a GP check-up.

Patients who ask for treatment for privately diagnosed illnesses are frequently refused on the grounds that it is too expensive, not proven to work or not licensed by the NHS. Doctors often then write ‘patient refuses medication’.

Any visits to a consultant are usually preceded by letters of referral, emphasising that the patient has been on tranquillisers and that all their symptoms are psychosomatic. Consultants take their cue from this note, infer that the patient is neurotic or a hypochondriac, and will either offer tests that will show nothing untoward or refuse to offer tests of any kind. Thus, they are able to diagnose even extremely ill patients as neurotic or mad. The patient is checkmated yet again.

Countless tranquilliser patients and their children, often drug-damaged during pregnancy, live in penury be-cause doctors make it impossible for them to obtain disability benefits by writing ‘chronic anxiety’ or something similar on their claim forms. Withholding treatment and benefits is, of course, ‘proof’ that benzodiazepines are harmless. Humiliated and terrified, patients cease to contact their doctors. Some even commit suicide.

Having succeeded in covering up the side-effects of tranquillisers, doctors now have carte blanche to go on prescribing them for every ill, ignoring the 1988 guidelines. Indeed, prescription numbers are soaring again (BBC Panorama, 19 May 2001).

The next time your doctor tells you that tranquillisers have no side-effects, you will know how the medical profession has carefully erased any evidence to the contrary.

Margaret Bell

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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