Warning over prescription drug use

Posted on: Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Overdose Awareness Day - August 31 

A leading Melbourne addiction specialist is urging the community to rethink the image of the stereotypical drug user, saying it was excessive prescription drug use by people from a range of backgrounds, including mums and dads, and professional workers that was becoming more prevalent.

Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre’s Head of Clinical Services Dr Matthew Frei said while much attention in the past focused on so-called illicit substances, the rise of pharmaceutical drug addiction could not be ignored.

 “When people think of overdoses, illegal drugs such as heroin might be what first comes to mind,” Dr Frei said.

“However, in my practice experience, the past five years has seen an increase in harms from drugs such as painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication.”

Dr Frei, who has had worked in the drug and alcohol field for more than a decade, said people from a variety of backgrounds could succumb to prescription drug overdoses.

“Presentations to health services for treatment of substance use problems now range from those who use pharmaceutical drugs on medical advice, but develop features of addiction, through to the young person who procures a parent’s painkillers and underestimates the drug’s potency, leading to an overdose,” he said.

“We are seeing acute toxicity presentations in people with no history of significant substance use, such as the middle-aged suburban family man or woman who takes four tablets instead of two when they are feeling a bit tense and ends up in a hospital emergency department.

“The widespread use and consequent harms from prescription drugs should prompt some rethink of the ‘stereotypical’ drug user and that it is blurring the distinction between legal and illegal drug use.

Dr Frei said mixing prescription drugs with substances such as alcohol could also cause adverse health effects.

“The problem here is that the outcomes and effects of combining substances is less predictable,” he said.

Recent Turning Point research on prescription drugs has revealed:

  • In 2010-11, there were 3135 ambulance attendances in Melbourne due to benzodiazepines, 1216 due to antidepressants and 1055 due to antipsychotics. There were also 472 attendances for opioid analgesics and 1359 for other analgesics. *

  • Between 2001 and 2010, there was an increase of 132 per cent in alprazolam-related ambulance attendances in Melbourne, from 373 attendances to 864. ** Alprazolam is used to treat anxiety disorders.

Speaking on the eve of Overdose Awareness Day, Dr Frei said Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre had a range of support services to help people who may have an addiction issue.

“Our phone support service DirectLine and our online service Counselling Online are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We also have on-site services in Fitzroy,” Dr Frei said.

“Taking that first step can be difficult but the Turning Point team is here to lend a hand.”

People looking for support can contact DirectLine on 1800 888 236 or visit www.counsellingonline.org.au      


For media inquiries, please contact Winston Tan from Eastern Health Communications on 0407 785 706.

About Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre

Turning Point (established 1995 and based in Fitzroy) provides leadership to the Victorian alcohol and drug sector. It promotes the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities living with, and affected by, alcohol, other drug-related harms and gambling. In 2009, Turning Point joined Eastern Health.

About Eastern Health

Eastern Health is one of Victoria’s largest public health services. It provides a range of acute, sub-acute, mental health and community health services from 29 locations. Its larger facilities include: Angliss Hospital in Upper Ferntree Gully, Box Hill Hospital in Box Hill, Healesville & District Hospital in Healesville, Maroondah Hospital in Ringwood East, Peter James Centre in Burwood East, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre in Fitzroy, Wantirna Health in Wantirna, Yarra Valley Community Health in Healesville and Yarra Ranges Health in Lilydale

*Lloyd, B (2012) Trends in alcohol and drug related ambulance attendances 2010/2011. Melbourne: Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre

** Best, D, Wilson A, Reed M, Lloyd B, Eade A and Lubman D (2012) Alprazolam and wider benzodiazepine misuse in Australia – sources of supply and evidence of harms. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, early online