America suffers from a significant drug addiction problem. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 10% of the population will suffer from a drug use disorder at some point during their lives. While illicit “street drugs” such as heroin make headlines, the fact is that drug abuse and addiction is becoming increasingly common with legal prescription drugs. For the majority of people, drug dependence begins when they are prescribed a medication that they then either misuse or abuse. Over time, prescription drug abuse can lead to addiction, serious health consequences, and even cause people to turn to other substances. With thousands of medications on the market with addictive potential, prescription drug abuse is possible with many different medications. However, there are three primary classes of prescription drugs that lead to the majority of drug addictions.
Depressants, sometimes colloquially known as “downers,” are a class of drug that lowers neurotransmission levels in the brain. These drugs reduce arousal and stimulation levels, leading to sedation, drowsiness, and feelings of calm. The three most commonly prescribed depressant medications are barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications. These drugs are abused because they result in a feeling of euphoria. Of the depressants currently on the market, benzodiazepines have the highest rate of abuse and are by far the most dangerous.
Benzodiazepines are prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and sleep disorders. Short-acting benzodiazepines are often prescribed as a treatment for panic attacks. Benzodiazepines are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. The most commonly abused benzodiazepines are:
The vast majority of people begin abusing these drugs simply to feel more relaxed. When these drugs are abused, people can experience a wide range of negative symptoms, including depression, confusion, loss of memory, and severe disinhibition. Benzodiazepine abuse rapidly leads to severe physical dependence. It is not only very difficult to stop using benzodiazepines once physical dependence has emerged, it can actually be dangerous. The withdrawal symptoms that occur when a person stops using benzodiazepines include severe effects such as depersonalization, psychosis, suicidal ideation, seizures, and delirium tremens. Medically unsupervised benzodiazepine withdrawal can even be life-threatening.
The United States and much of the world is currently facing an unprecedented opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic is taking lives, causing economic damage, and devastating communities. Opioids are a class of drugs with depressant properties that are derived from the opium poppy. While illicit street drugs like heroin are potent opioids, opioids are also essential medications in clinical practice. Opioid analgesics are used to treat pain. While useful, prescription opioids are no less addictive than illicit opioids. In fact, the rise of high potency synthetic opioids like fentanyl has resulted in even higher addiction rates. Fentanyl and its analogues are 50-100 times more potent than morphine, and far more addictive. These drugs are on the rise, with overdose deaths involving prescription opioids quadrupling between 1999 and 2018. Between those years, a total of 232,000 people died as a result of prescription opioid overdoses.
Stimulants are the opposite of depressants, elevating levels of arousal in the brain and body. The most commonly prescribed stimulant, amphetamine, is generally used to treat narcolepsy, obesity, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, the drug is also commonly taken in high doses for recreational purposes. When abused, stimulants temporarily improve energy levels, cognitive performance, and confidence. Due to its performance-boosting effects, amphetamine is particularly popular among college students. In a survey of college students with ADHD, 62% of them self-reported distributing their prescribed amphetamine to other students. Unfortunately, the brief boost that people experience on stimulants leads to dangerous consequences. People who abuse amphetamine can experience psychosis, paranoia, and life-threatening overdoses. Fatal overdoses become more likely when the drug is combined with depressants.
In 2017, an estimated 18 million people abused prescription drugs. It is a commonly held belief that if a drug is prescribed by a doctor, it must be harmless. The truth is, a significant percentage of addictions begin with prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug abuse is inherently dangerous on its own, but it can also lead people to turn to illicit street drugs that are often cheaper and sometimes more potent. Left untreated, many of these addictions devastate people’s interpersonal, financial, and legal standings -- and can often be fatal as well. If you or a loved one is suffering from prescription drug addiction, it is essential that you seek outside help. The nature of drug addiction makes it impossible to manage using individual willpower. Outpatient treatment centers can help individuals suffering from addiction withdraw from their medications safely. Moreover, they provide people with the coping strategies, tools, and social support system they need to remain sober over the long-term. Recovery is possible; it’s just a matter of getting help.