A prescription drug is one that requires a medical prescription to be dispensed by an educated medical professional to prevent the potential for misuse.

However, according to an article in The Independent, whilst overall prescriptions for all drugs in the UK are increasing only slightly (0.3% in 2017), the dispensing of certain addictive medications used to treat pain, anxiety and depression are increasing at an alarmingly high rate.

The opioid crisis that started in America in the mid-1990s is spreading and the UK  is not immune. Between 2001 and 2013 the use of prescription opioids has doubled worldwide. In 2017 alone the BBC reported that, in England, GPs prescribed 23.8 million opioid-based painkillers – a rise of 10 million prescriptions since 2007. While prescriptions to treat depression and anxiety disorders have increased from 36 million to 70.9 million in the last ten years.

GPs aren’t drug dealers; they are there to treat the afflicted, yet these dangerous prescriptions are on the increase and having a devastating effect on those taking them. Some people have underlying mental health conditions that prescription drugs help treat but the medication alone doesn’t necessarily solve the underlying problem. The drug can then become a method of ‘papering over the cracks’, with the patient starting to rely on them to deal with the symptoms of the problem. Over time addiction sets in as tolerance builds and the user cannot function without the medication.

Today we are seeing more and more individuals prescribed strong pain medications, post-surgery for instance, which can kick start an addiction to which they are then tied to. Once hooked, many people then find it impossible to stop using the drugs even when the original pain is no longer evident.

In both these instances the solution quickly becomes the problem and the propensity to abuse the medicine increases. The overuse of any drug can have significant health implications not to mention the terrible physical and mental withdrawal symptoms for the patient if the drug is suddenly stopped and no longer prescribed.

Many of the latest figures come from government statistics and public health organisations. The untold story is of those falling outside these figures. Addicted to their drug of choice and, with either a well-meaning GP no longer willing to prescribe, or too embarrassed to make the legal approach any longer, they find alternative illicit means to find their fix. Opioid users may advance to street heroin whilst others search out the increasing trade of black market or unregulated online pharmacies. The dangers of street drugs are well known but illegal prescription medications with unknown ingredients are prevalent. Opioid deaths are at an all-time high, deaths from Xanax and other benzodiazepines increasing as well as deaths from less well known prescription drugs. For example, according to the BBC, in 2017 the prescription drug pregabalin, an anti-epilepsy drug, was responsible for 33 deaths in Northern Ireland.

Being addicted to prescription medication may not be tainted with the same stigma of a street drug addiction, but for the user the consequences: unmanageability of their lives; jobs; relationships; finances; emotional and physical health, are the same. Yet there is hope for all of those addicted. With the right treatment, therapy, support and expertise that is available, many can break free from the bondage of drug use, overcome the underlying mental health trauma and rebuild a life where there is no slavery to substance; prescribed or not.

NICE – The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recently been asked by the department of health to develop a guideline covering the safe prescribing of drugs associated with dependence and the careful management of withdrawing from these drugs to support medical professionals. As with any initiative like this the motives are right, but will it solve the problem? For many addicts the drug is rarely the problem, it is just a symptom of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Is there a prescription medication public health emergency in the UK? Do we have our own Opioid crisis? No. The UK has a mental health crisis that needs treating. We need to strip back the walls, re-plaster the whole interior and stop papering over the cracks.