Hundreds of thousands more women than men have been prescribed a powerful fight against-worry A drug that experts warn is harder than heroin, independent can reveal.
New information obtained under Freedom of Information FoI laws show that women in England were 59 per cent more likely to describe benzodiazepines Brand names Valium, Xanax, and temazapam were more popular than men between January 2017 and December 2021.
The exclusive data shows that 1,661,178 men were prescribed benzodiazepines, while 2,641,656 women were given prescriptions for these sedatives in this period.
Benzodiazepines are usually prescribed for anxiety and insomnia – with symptoms of drug withdrawal including depression, severe anxiety, insomnia, vivid nightmares, headaches, vomiting, tremors, convulsions, and in the worst cases, seizures that can cause death.
Many countries explicitly state that benzodiazepines should not be taken for more than four weeks, while research has found that benzodiazepines can cause memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
In September 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that a “black box warning” should be placed on all benzodiazepines to inform patients that drug withdrawal from the drugs could be life-threatening.
Stephen Buckley, CIO of Mind, a leading mental health charity in the UK, said: independent It was difficult “to know the exact reasons why women are more likely to prescribe benzodiazepines than men,” but said the FOI findings “support other findings showing that gender differences in prescribing have been occurring for a long time.”
He added: “We know historically that women are more likely to seek help for their mental health than men, so this may explain some of the differences, however, there may also be age-related or prognostic factors, which the data do not take into account.”
“Previous research in some parts of the world found that male prescribers were more likely to prescribe benzodiazepines to female patients than male patients. Research into the underlying causes of gender differences in psychiatric drug prescribing is important.”
Mr Buckley cautioned that benzodiazepines can be “addictive and cause strong withdrawal effects, especially for those who take the drugs for long periods of time”.
He warned patients that they should be “fully informed of the potentially harmful side effects” of benzodiazepines, calling on anyone “withdrawing” from the drugs “to do so gradually and with the support of their GP”.
While Joanna Moncrieff, Professor of Critical and Social Psychiatry at University College London, has argued that there are more deeply rooted social reasons why benzodiazepines are prescribed to women more than men.
The academy, which specializes in drug psychotherapy, added: “Women are more likely to cope, feel depressed and go to the doctor. Men are more likely to come out and get angry, yell at people and drink alcohol.”
“Women are generally less confident, and are brought up with inferior thoughts, which makes them more prone to anxiety and depression. There is a cultural expectation that women suffer from these things and should be treated a certain way.”
Professor Moncrieff, a prominent figure in the Critical Psychiatry Network, said that few of her patients take long-term prescriptions of benzodiazepines that last for years, sometimes decades.
She added that GPs are trying “desperately” to get people off benzodiazepines, noting that people addicted to heroin or alcohol are able to wean themselves off more quickly than people who are dependent on benzodiazepines.
Professor Moncrieff explained that she recently set up a “pioneering” clinic that helps users of benzodiazepines, antidepressants and sleeping pills off their medication for the long-term.
She added: “People find it very difficult to stop taking benzodiazepines because of the withdrawal effects. Sometimes people are very anxious and depressed. You get these brain contractions – these electric shock sensations.
“Some people were using it from a period when they weren’t recognized as bad as they are now.”
told Fiona French, who lives in Aberdeen independent She was first prescribed benzodiazepines in 1975 due to spasms in her arms and legs.
“They are used as muscle relaxants,” added the 68-year-old, who is now retired but used to work on academic research for the NHS. No information was provided about the risks. Once I started taking benzos, I was fine.”
Ms French said she had failed to link her “rapid decline” to benzodiazepines – adding that she had lost a quarter of her weight with her breasts “disappearing” in about ten weeks.
She added, “But the doctors didn’t connect it to benzos, they thought it was my mental state. I was seen as having a nervous breakdown but the drug was causing a breakdown in my emotional, physical and psychological health.”
So I was referred to psychiatry and then treated as someone with depression or a personality disorder. I’ve made repeated attempts to take my life away. I was never suicidal before I was on benzos [popular nickname for benzodiazepines]. “
Ms French said a doctor then tried her with a range of different antidepressants, explaining that she was taking benzodiazepines and a variety of antidepressants from 1975 until 2012.
“When I retired, I changed my GP practice and reviewed the medication. He said benzos was no longer a new treatment for my condition.” “He suggested I consider getting rid of it but he didn’t give me any advice on how to get rid of it.”
Ms French decided she would stop taking the drug, saying she had fallen seriously ill after six months of taking benzodiazepines altogether – adding that she had mostly been confined to her bed for about two years.
She added, “It was a shock to my system and my mind. I was bedridden. I couldn’t stand the light or the sound. I couldn’t get the light or the TV or the radio on. I couldn’t talk on the phone. I couldn’t stand the voices of people.”
“I could only stand on my feet for five minutes. I couldn’t shower because I couldn’t stand the water on my skin. It was like living in a chemical fog and I couldn’t remember what was happening from hour to hour. Night became day. Day became night. It was More like dementia. It was a brain injury.”
She said she had only left home for three years to go to the doctors, adding that an NHS neurologist had told her the illness was caused by the shock of stopping benzodiazepines.
Ms French said it was “extremely disturbing” when the dangers of benzodiazepines came to light in the 1980s, noting that she had seen a documentary about a man who said getting rid of drugs was more difficult for him than when fighting on the front lines in World War II.
She explained that she initially needed a wheelchair during her recovery as she indicated that she is now in much better condition but still tires easily.
“I will not take it again,” Ms. French concluded. “Any drug that can cause that degree of unbearable suffering is a bad drug.”
Benzodiazepines quickly became the most widely prescribed type of drug worldwide after hitting the market in the early 1960s and they remain one of the most commonly prescribed forms of anti-anxiety medication. But prescriptions for benzodiazepines in England fell from 11.3 million in 2010 to 8.6 million in 2020 following the concerns.
Dr John Reed, a professor at the University of East London, argued that benzodiazepines were “still touted in such numbers” as a “national scandal”.
The academic added: “Women, and other psychotropic drugs, are prescribed these drugs much more often than men primarily because they are more exposed to causes of stress and anxiety, such as violence, abuse, childcare and elderly parents.
Adding all the harmful effects of these dependence-causing drugs to the problems women come to help with often leads to a further decline in their quality of life. “
His comments reflect data showing that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression in the UK, while men are more likely to kill themselves.
Dr. Reed added: “Long-term use of benzo can cause significant cognitive decline, including the ability to form new memories.”