Monday night's RTE documentary proved that Irish people really love popping pills.
Here are nine horrifying revelations from Dr Eva Orsmond's documentary:
Ireland has twice as many pharmacies per capita as the UK. We spend 77 percent more on medication than Norway, which is the richest country in Europe. Prescriptions have skyrocketed from 32 million in 2000 to 73.5 million in 2015, and this figure does not include private prescriptions. 60 percent of over 65s are on five or more drugs a day, and 22 percent of the same demographic are on ten or more a day. Approximately €500 per year is spent for every man, woman and child in the state, which is 40 percent higher than the EU average.
Over 450,000 people in Ireland, or roughly one in ten, are on anti-depressants. Anti-depressants are one of the most highly prescribed drugs in the State. Twelve anti-depressants appear in the top 100 prescribed medicines in Ireland, accounting for 3.5 million prescriptions per annum. Dr. Declan Ahern, Head of Counselling in the University of Limerick, says, “As a nation we need to look at whether medication is always an appropriate route to dealing with mental health. Young people are not hammering down my door looking for pills. They need to talk and want someone to listen. I don’t see medication as the key for mild and moderate mental health problems.”
The community drugs scheme spends €52 million per year on anti-depressants, which is greater than the total spend on all psychological and adult counselling services in the country. Since 2013, medical card holders are entitled to receive eight counselling sessions, but waiting lists can be months long. Fiona Kennedy, a mother of two from Galway, couldn't afford to pay up to €100 per counselling session after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Her only option was to raise money asking friends on Facebook and readers of her blog. She quite quickly received enough assistance to pay for treatment thanks to people’s overwhelming kindness and generosity. “If you’re struggling, ask for help,” she advises. “Do not wait until you get to crisis point.”
Diazepam (Valium) and Alprazolam (Xanax) are number 27 and 30 in the list of most prescribed medications in this country. In the 60s, these drugs we’re hailed as a medical breakthrough. In the 70s, they became the most prescribed drugs in the United States. A report for the Irish Medical Journal last year discovered there was “evidence that inappropriate benzodiazepine prescribing persists in Ireland in both General Practice and residential care settings.”
Shane Kenny became a household name in Ireland through his work as an RTÉ news anchor and a Government press secretary. In 2001, he was diagnosed with Meniere's disease, which adversely effects the inner-ear and causes vertigo. After being prescribed Valium, he suffered very strange symptoms and couldn’t bear some everyday sounds such as a boiling kettle. To his horror, he discovered this acute sound sensitivity, coupled with severe shooting pains, were side effects of benzodiazepines. In 2009, he made a documentary entitled ‘Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster’. “Benzos are extremely dangerous and should only be used for a few days at a time,” he says. "Benzodiazepines have totally and utterly destroyed my life.”
In Dublin South, only 4 percent of patients are on benzodiazepines, compared to 10 percent in other parts of the country and 20% for medical card holders. In 2012, more Valium was prescribed in Cork’s North inner city than anywhere else in Ireland. About one in five medical card holders are on anti-anxiety drugs. Dr. Nick Flynn in Cork North inner city said: “I can’t magically stop these prescriptions. They’re bloody effective medication. If anxiety is like a fire, then benzodiazepines are like the fire brigade. We’re GPs, not counsellors, so when we recommend a non-drug option and it is six months or more away, it is very difficult not reach for the prescription pad if someone really wants or feels they need one.”
More deaths are caused by benzodiazepine poisoning than heroin with numbers seeking treatment doubling since 2009. Michael Guerin from the Cuan Mhuire treatment centre in Limerick sees this first hand. “People on benzodiazepines can be as difficult as any cohort of client in trying to break the habit,” he says.
One of his patients revealed: “People on heroin will tell you benzodiazepines can be a lot worse than heroin. They're lethal.”
Sales of codeine based tablets have soared in recent times with Solphadene and Nurofen Plus proving to be extremely popular. Packaging comes with strong warnings, but advice is often not heeded. Opiate misuse has become a huge global issue with more people dying of opiate overdoses in the US than heroin or cocaine. An anonymous participant revealed they drive to four different pharmacies every day to buy four separate large packs of Nurofen. They conservatively estimated they've spent over €300,000 on tablets over ten years. When the documentary makers purchased Solphadene from thirty Dublin chemists, three didn’t ask any questions whatsoever, which is a serious breach of current protocol.
Dr. Orsmond said she finds walking in the forest with her dogs extremely therapeutic, as it raises endorphin levels and helps her put life’s problems into perspective. There is a serious issue with over-prescription, and prescribing drugs for mild or moderate depression can be counter-productive.
“This issue is chronic and growing,” Dr. Orsmond concludes. “We have to wake up.”
It’s about two years since Ray D’Arcy left Today FM for RTE in a highly publicised, and very big-money, return to where it all started, for a two-pronged assault on the public’s affections, radio and telly. Has it been worth it?