So widespread is this form of medication that it is now being used by one out of every four people on welfare. Almost half those in divorce situations are on ‘downers’ while women use them twice as much as men.
Given the serious dangers associated with prescription drugs, these are alarming statistics. Their growing popularity is in line with global trends, reflecting the dramatic changes in Irish lifestyles.
To an increasing degree, people are taking this kind of medication for its calming effect. And because they are considered highly addictive, most of the propriety brands are prescribed by a doctor.
Regrettably, however, many GPs find themselves under such pressure nowadays, they hardly have the time to talk to their patients. It is common knowledge that in some instances, tranquillisers were doled out like sweets.
Brand names such as Valium, Ativan, Mogadon, Librium, Rohypnol, Normison, Temazepam are common currency in the language of stressed or depressed people. Since it appeared on the market 20 years ago, Prozac has become the most widely used anti-depressant drug in medical history.
Against this backdrop, the findings of a national report, seen by the Irish Examiner, make grim reading. Commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, the Government advisory body, the survey shows that 12% of Irish people, between the ages of 15 and 64, have taken these drugs at some point in their lives.
Putting the spotlight on current usage, the report found that while 4% of the overall age group take them, the prevalence increases among older adults, with 16% of those in the 35-64 age bracket turning to ‘sleepers’ or other such drugs.
It is perhaps not surprising that people on state benefit are by far the biggest users of tranquillisers, sedatives and anti-depressant drugs. Weighed down by financial, housing, social and educational pressures, 25% have used tranquillisers and 13% are currently on them. Among the unemployed, 23% use drugs as opposed to 10% of those who are working.
The toll of marital separation and divorce is also plain to see as 42% of divorced people and 26% of those separated resort to such drugs to calm their anxieties. Bereavement is another cause of stress and 28% of those who are widowed have turned to drugs for solace.
In terms of current use, one in ten of those separated, divorced or widowed are reliant on such drugs to one degree or another.
While these drugs have the effect of calming users, they can also be dangerous. Acting on the brain, they depress the central nervous system, slowing people down mentally, thus relieving tension and anxiety.
However, high doses can be dangerous, leaving users drowsy, drunk-like, confused and forgetful. Strong tranquillisers can even be addictive and, combined with alcohol, they can be fatal.
In Britain, people who claim they became addicted to prescription drugs are taking a compensation case to the European Court of Human Rights.
At one level, this revealing report is a timely warning of the growing and costly dependence of Irish people on tranquillisers, sedatives and anti-depressant drugs.
It is also a revealing insight into a rapidly changing Ireland where tens of thousands have to commute to work, risking the mayhem witnessed in yesterday’s pile-up, and where stressed-out couples are at the pin of their collars to meet the soaring cost of childcare and repay crippling mortgages.