The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and sleep aids and doctors are concerned about long-term addiction and abuse, a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report said on Monday.
“Many physicians have a low threshold for prescribing them. It’s very problematic,” the report quoted Bruce J. Schwartz, deputy chair and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, as saying. “Many people do develop a dependency on these medications.”
In March 2019, 8.8 million Americans filled prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, such as Klonopin and Ativan. By the end of March 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, 9.7 million Americans filled prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, a rise of 10.2%. And prescriptions for anti-depressants, including Prozac and Lexapro, also jumped by 9.2% from last March, from 27.2 million in March 2019 to 29.7 million in March 2020.
Even these significantly increased numbers may not reflect the entire bleak picture as no data is known on whether people already on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications increased their dosages.
And some companies have noted a far more dramatic increase. Express Scripts, owned by Cigna, reported seeing a 34.1% increase in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications from mid-February and mid-March, a 18.6% increase in prescriptions for anti-depressants and a 14.8% increase in prescriptions for sleep medications.
The report added that according to a survey by the American Psychiatric Association, one-third of Americans said that the coronavirus pandemic is “seriously impacting” their mental health. And among parents with children under age 18, 46% reported that their average stress level related to the pandemic was 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale, according to a American Psychological Association survey.
“This kind of chronic stress brings about, for all those people who have never had anxiety before, it sort of overwhelms them,” says Charles B. Nemeroff, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin and president-elect of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “If you’ve lost your job, if you’re worried if you’ll have enough food for your kids, that will keep you up at night.”
Dr. James Potash, director of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told the WSJ that although anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax, Ativan and Klonopin work very well, their use should be limited to weeks and not months.
“They are powerful, and they are powerfully attractive in that they work instantly,” said Potash. “You take Ativan, and 30 minutes later you are feeling dramatically less anxious.”
Potash added that people develop a tolerance to the medications’ effects very quickly which leads patients to increase their dosages. He also warns that these medications are very difficult to stop, causing difficult withdrawal symptoms.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)