In the United States, the widespread use of these drugs for teen anxiety is becoming a concern.
Anything taken in excess is harmful to health, let alone medication. A national study co-authored by researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey raised the alarm about the sharp increase in the number of adolescents who have overdosed on benzodiazepines, a common anti-anxiety drug. According to the study, published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, the number of cases of adolescents between 12 and 18 years of age who have overdosed on benzodiazepines has increased by 54% between 2000 and 2015.
Intentional abuse is increasing
An analysis of 296,838 cases of exposure to benzodiazepines in children under 18 revealed that while exposure in children under 6 decreased, the rate of exposure in adolescents increased from 17.7 cases per 100,000 children in 2000 to 27.3 cases per 100,000 children in 2015. Researchers from different institutions collected data from the National Poison Data System. The figures also show an increase in cases of intentional abuse, which represents almost half of all reported exposure cases in 2015 due to misuse or attempted suicide.
According to Diane Calello, Executive Director and Medical Director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center and one of the authors of the report, although benzodiazepine overdose is not usually fatal, the study shows an increase in the number of adolescents using one or more additional substances, which increases the severity of the effects, including death or life-threatening symptoms that affect long-term health.
What is very worrying is that approximately 70,000 children visit the emergency room every year due to a drug overdose, and almost 12% of these visits require a hospital stay. Calello attributes the cases of adult and child poisoning to an increased availability of prescribed medication.
The problem of benzodiazepines
According to Diane Calello, these results are related to the increase in benzodiazepine prescriptions in the United States over the past decade. And health care professionals should be aware of the increasing prevalence of exposure to benzodiazepine to help limit unnecessary prescriptions. Also, parents and caregivers should be advised on the proper use, storage and disposal of these high-risk drugs.
Benzodiazepine distribution should be taken seriously, as recent research shows that adolescent substance users have abnormal brain functions related to the volume of brain structure, the quality of white matter and the activation of cognitive tasks.
Benzodiazepines have a strong calming effect on the central nervous system. As a result, they are prescribed for people suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, panic attacks, seizures and other mental health problems. Despite the high probability of addiction, they are loosely prescribed in the United States. In addition to using the drug for medical reasons, adolescents often abuse the drug and eventually become hooked on it. They are also likely to remain dependent on the drug in adult life.
Even on its own, the drug is highly addictive. Adolescents exacerbate the effects by using it in combination with alcohol and marijuana. One of the most serious effects of benzodiazepine abuse in adolescents is anterograde amnesia, caused by the use of large amounts of the drug. The affected adolescents have a “blackout” period, that is, a memory loss during which they do not remember the period in question. Although different from the loss of consciousness, it leaves them vulnerable to a wide range of dangers.
Other effects include depression, mood swings, aggression, blurred vision, poor work and school performance, muscle cramps, headaches, poor memory and dependence on other substances.