In a 2018 CBC interview, Wendy Mesley asked Jordan Peterson, then at the zenith of his celebrity, what he thought lay ahead for him. Peterson responded with his typical gloomy realism: I dont know whats next, really. The overwhelming likelihood, as far as Im concerned, and its been this way since September of 2016, is that this will go terribly wrong. Its too much, eh? Its been too much for a long time. Im surfing a hundred-foot wave and generally what happens if you do that is you drown.
Peterson surely meant the words metaphorically, suggesting that the publics interest in him would wane as rapidly as it had escalated. But in retrospect, the words too much and drown acquire an ominous prescience.
In a recent YouTube video, Petersons daughter, Mikhaila, summarized her familys past year of absolute hell. In dealing with anxiety, Jordan Peterson developed an addiction to a benzodiazepine (commonly known as benzos, this category of drugs includes Ativan, Serax, Klonopin, Xanax and Valium, amongst others), which led to numerous unbearable side effects, notably akathisia, an irresistible restlessness thats so maddening, it led to suicidal ideation.
It is unfortunate that it often takes the publicity surrounding a famous persons tragedy to jump-start a national discussion, but if ever there was a moment to shine a light on the scandal of decades of overprescription of benzos, this is it.
Janet Currie, a PhD candidate in the University of British Columbias School of Nursing, is a Canadian researcher and educator with long-time concerns over the safety and use of psychiatric drugs. She has no ties to any pharmaceutical companies, so her research is entirely independent. Before consulting her personally, I read Curries paper for the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Womens Health, titled Manufacturing Addiction: The over-prescription of benzodiapezines and sleeping pills to women in Canada, which contains many sobering facts and statistics. Although published in 2003, Currie said the paper requires no material updates.
The first benzos were called tranquillizers and were marketed in the 1960s as a safe and effective alternative to barbiturates. But after only one year of availability, the first report in the medical literature describing their addictive nature was published, according to Curries report.
There is an elephant in the mental-health room that seems curiously invisible.
Currie notes that it is estimated that up to 15 per cent of adults may be using benzos; of them, up to 65 per cent are women. The majority of people who take these drugs at recommended dosages will become dependent on them, and of them, most will experience difficulties withdrawing from the drugs. Canadian and international studies indicate that 20 to 50 per cent of all women over 60 may be prescribed benzos or sleeping pills and that long-term use increases with age. A strong link has been established between falls in elderly women and drugs, of which 90 per cent are benzodiapezines, according to the report. In 2000, one in three status Aboriginal women over 40 in Western Canada were prescribed benzodiazepines.
I put a number of questions to Currie in an email exchange. Was Petersons story an outlier? Not really, she said, there are many stories like it. Most people do not know that benzos should be prescribed for a maximum of a few weeks. What Peterson experienced was a prescribing cascade, in which the withdrawal symptoms are not associated with the benzos, so more drugs are prescribed with even more deleterious effects.
Petersons desperation trip to Russia is understandable, Currie told me, because there is a serious lack of physicians (in Canada) who are willing to do tapers and no accessible community-based resources where people can get help. Tapering, the process of slowly weaning a person off a drug, can take months or years. By the way, Currie added, benzos are also sold on the street and widely used by heroin addicts and alcoholics.
Have there been lawsuits, I asked, and if so, what were the results? Currie responded that its difficult to go up against a big drug company, though some have tried. She cited the case of Joan Gadsby, a municipal official in B.C., who, following her young sons death from brain cancer, was prescribed benzos that led to addiction and multiple harrowing side effects. She sued her doctor, but lost the case and all her retirement savings. After interviewing thousands of stakeholders, however, Gadsby became an expert on the subject. Currie recommends her book, Addiction by Prescription.
The most significant attempt at legal redress was a years-long U.K. class-action lawsuit that was undertaken through Britains Legal Aid Funding Plan and involved 14,000 patients and 1,800 lawyers. It failed because legal aid couldnt handle the costs.
Canadians talk a lot about the need to address mental health issues openly and non-judgmentally. Thats good. But here is an elephant in the mental-health room that seems curiously invisible. Perhaps when Jordan Peterson is fully recovered and godspeed to him he will help to lead that discussion.
More information on benzos and other psychiatric drugs can be found at psychmedaware.org.
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