Benzodiazepine Abuse Epidemic

September 17, 2016


Benzodiazepine Abuse Epidemic

Benzodiazepines are prescription medications that are commonly prescribed by physicians for individuals with legitimate medical conditions such as:


  • Anxiety

  • Insomnia

  • Alcohol withdrawal

  • Seizure control

  • Muscle relaxation

  • Inducing amnesia for uncomfortable procedures

  • Mood stabilization

Yet, individuals across South Africa are obtaining these prescription drugs illegally and therefore are abusing these drugs to obtain the side effects that one experiences using them.

There is a serious epidemic occurring in South Africa and  according to a recent report released in 2013 from the International Narcotics Control Board, South Africa is now the second largest

per-capita consumer of methamphetamine related substances throughout the world.

In 2012, about 1 million youth, aged 15-24 years, reported having used a psychoactive pharmaceutical in the past year. As a result of this research, Healthcare organizations are continually looking for ways to raise awareness among parents and youth about the health risks of alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse.


What are benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a group of prescription medications used to produce sedation and muscle relaxation. Through their effect on the Central Nervous System, they have the ability to lower anxiety levels. They are milder than other tranquilizers and are commonly prescribed by medical doctors to treat anxiety, agitation, insomnia, muscle spasms and seizures.

Benzodiazepines are categorized as short-acting, intermediate and long-acting. Short and intermediate-acting benzodiazepines are usually used to treat insomnia while longer-acting ones are used in the treatment of anxiety and alcohol withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines have often been called the most widely prescribed group of drugs in the world and the biggest selling drugs in the history of medicine with worldwide sales in excess of $21 billion in 2009. An estimated 60% of users of tranquilizers and sleeping pills suffer a mixture of adverse effects and withdrawal after 2 – 4 weeks of use (including therapeutic dose levels) due to tolerance and addiction.


How are benzodiazepines used?

Benzodiazepines mostly come in the form of pills although they are also available through injection. When taken orally, benzodiazepines must first be metabolized by the liver in order to exert their effects. This method results in approximately 50% of the drug undergoing first-pass metabolism, which lessens its effect. Injection bypasses the metabolism and results in a stronger effect.


How do benzodiazepines make you feel?

The effect of benzodiazepines depends on many different factors such as a person’s height, weight and dosage. Some common immediate effects include a feeling of relaxation, drowsiness, decrease in energy levels, mental confusion, dizziness and short-term memory impairments.
Long-term users may experience further effects such as a lack of energy and interest in doing every day activities. They may feel irritable, nauseated, and have headaches and experience loss of libido. Long-term use of benzodiazepines may also lead to depression.


What are some possible side effects of benzodiazepines?

Side effects caused by benzodiazepines may include drowsiness, dizziness, upset stomach, blurred vision, headache, confusion, depression, euphoria, impaired coordination, changes in heart rate, hypotension, trembling, weakness, amnesia, grogginess, dreaming or nightmares, chest pain, and vision changes. Benzodiazepines share many common effects with alcohol and barbiturates.


What causes the effects?

Benzodiazepines act to prevent or inhibit neurons in the brain from firing neurotransmitters. This occurs because benzodiazepines increase the release of a chemical called GABA – the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain – which serves to inhibit the release of other neurotransmitters.


How long do the effects last?

Duration of the effects of benzodiazepines depends on whether they are short, intermediate or long acting. Short acting benzodiazepines have a half-life of less than 12 hours while long-acting ones have a half-life of 24 hours or more. However, duration of apparent effects is usually considerably less than that. For most benzodiazepines these effects wear off within a few hours. However, the drug can continue to exert subtle effects within the body, which becomes apparent through withdrawal-related side-effects.


Are benzodiazepines addictive?

It is very easy to become dependent on benzodiazepines in as little as four weeks. Dependence develops sooner in people who take higher doses of the drug. Abrupt discontinuation of the drug or a drastic reduction of dosage results in withdrawal symptoms. Some of the withdrawal symptoms may be identical to those for which the medication was originally prescribed. Most common withdrawal symptoms from discontinued use of the drug are increased anxiety, depression, autonomic instability, insomnia and sensory hypersensitivity.


Are benzodiazepines dangerous?

When used in prescribed dosages, benzodiazepines are relatively safe. Overdose of benzodiazepines rarely results in death; however, concurrent use with other drugs or alcohol can lead to death. Benzodiazepines are also highly addictive and rapid discontinuation of the drug can lead to convulsions and seizures.

Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction

A person with chronic abuse usually requires the assistance of a doctor and or

therapist / counselor or drug rehabilitation centre.


One 2 One counseling services can offer a person the right advice and suggestions as to how to successfully wean off benzodiazepines.

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One 2 One Therapeutic Support is an international organization, offering help to clients worldwide through online sessions and also personally at our physical location in Cape Town, South Africa. All qualifications are under the auspices of the MHCPC (Manor House Centre for Psychotherapy and Counseling) and the BACP (British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy) in The United Kingdom and Great Britain. MHCPC UK registration no. 1131804.

We do not have a South African Registration.

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