Prescription medication addiction is a growing concern worldwide and many doctors and medical professionals have warned that it has become as big of a problem as the use of illegal drugs here in the UK.

The issue of addiction to prescription drugs was even recognised as a big enough problem for an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to be formed in 2015, The APPG for Prescribed Drug Dependance (PDD). The APPG for PDD was created to “recognise, address, and reduce the harm caused by prescribed drug dependence”, according to their website.

In an evidence based review of the dependence and withdrawal associated with some prescribed medicines from Public Health England (PHE) it was reported that one in four adults were prescribed medication associated with dependence and withdrawals in 2017/18. 

These include prescription medications such as:

  • Benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax) for the treatment of conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms.
  • Z-drugs like zopiclone and zolpidem for the treatment of conditions such as insomnia.
  • Gabapentinoids like gabapentin, pregabalin, and mirogabalin for the treatment of conditions such as neuropathic (nerve) pain and epilepsy.
  • Antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Seroxat), fluvoxamine (Luvox), citalopram (Cipramil), escitalopram (Cipralex), and sertraline (Lustral) for the treatment of conditions such as clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalised anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Opioids like codeine (including co-codamol), fentanyl, tramadol, and morphine for the treatment of conditions such as chronic and acute pain.

Disconcertingly, the review also found that the number of people being prescribed these drugs inappropriately and for longer periods than good practice recommends has risen over the years.

Prescription medication addiction can affect practically anyone, regardless of age, background, or profession, and time and again, this is highlighted on screen through documentaries, news features, and fictional drama shows.

Prescription drug addiction on screen

Considering the issue the UK and many other countries face with prescription drug addiction, it is no surprise that it has been featured in the media through investigative documentaries, as part of major storylines in TV dramas, and as the subject matter for entire TV series’.

BBC’s Panorama

The BBC’s investigative documentary series, Panorama, has produced numerous episodes dedicated to issues around prescription medication, including a total of four episodes dedicated to the antidepressant, Seroxat.

In 2015 they released an episode titled Hooked on Painkillers, which focused on the issue of opioid addiction and the problems faced by patients who are addicted to the painkillers they were prescribed. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, this episode is no longer available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

More recently, in June of 2023, Panorama released another episode related to antidepressants, aptly titled The Antidepressant Story, which is currently available on iPlayer. The main focus for this episode is the alleged cover up by pharmaceutical companies of the concerns surrounding their antidepressants and the patients who have suffered as a result of being prescribed these drugs.

Netflix’s Painkiller and Hulu’s Dopesick

Although focussed on events in America, the limited drama series Painkiller, from Netflix, charts the origins of the opioid crisis experienced across the USA and those fuelling it.

Even though it is a fictional and highly dramatised representation, it is based on certain real life events and highlights the devastation opioid addiction has had on people’s lives. 

Comparisons can be made between Painkiller and the award-winning miniseries Dopesick, which examines the addiction to opioids in the same vein as Painkiller and is available to watch on Disney+ in the UK.

People took to X (Twitter), to voice their opinions after watching the series:

Ed Bisch (@ejb1893) wrote:

“Both #Dopesick and #Painkiller make for important television that amplifies the stories of the hundreds of thousands of people across the United States who have been impacted by #OxyContin #SacklerCartel”

Nasiphi (@africasnas) wrote:

“After #Painkiller I decided to get into #Dopesick and the Dopesick portrays addiction is the scariest I’ve ever seen. Painkiller did a great job of telling the journey of addiction and Dopesick shows you the actual hell that it is.”

Eliza Cornberry (@Valor_800m) wrote:

“#Painkiller all I know is this s**t is no joke and no exaggeration I’ve seen the effects of it first hand….. It destroys lives and it destroys families”

BBC’s Casualty

Very recently, prescription drug addiction has been featured as a prominent storyline on the BBC’s long-running medical drama, Casualty. The character of Faith Cadogan, played by Kirsty Mitchell, is addicted to the prescription drug diazepam and the storyline depicts her struggle with the addiction. Over the course of multiple months, the BBC drama has shown her stealing medication, lying to her daughter, friends, and colleagues, having intense emotional outbursts, hiding the truth, denying she needs help, and having to take time off work due to the struggle.

The storyline highlights the depths that some addicts will go to in order to satisfy their addiction and continue their supply, which in Faith’s case even meant lying to her best friend and telling her she has ovarian cancer to cover up the truth.

In an interview with Digital Spy, Kirsty Mitchell said this about how people have shared their stories of addiction with her:

“Most people who have told me their stories online have said how you go through things with people who are addicts and it just keeps going until that person can decide that they need help for themselves.”

As with Painkiller and Dopesick, many Casualty viewers offered their thoughts on the storyline and addiction on X:

Jane Masters (@janemas1989) wrote:

“Faith has finally admitted that she’s an addict hopefully now she’ll accept help #casualty”

KirstyJane (@KirstyCakes3006) wrote:

“My heart is breaking for Faith. I BEG let someone help you”

Pom Pom ~ Ms Gobby to you (@propergobby) wrote:

“I hope it’s not the end for Faith

It’s so important to show the devastating effects of addiction not only on the addict but on the people around them and the people they love

It’s equally important to show that with love, patience, and understanding, there is a way back”

It is easy to see why addiction gets dramatised so much on screen, as it is a very complex and emotive struggle, and it is good that awareness continues to be raised by these shows, encouraging important conversations around the subject of prescription drug addiction. But it is also incredibly important that creators embrace a responsibility to portray it appropriately – as a debilitating condition that requires compassion and support to overcome.

Support for prescription drug addiction

As a worldwide issue, it is important to emphasise that with the right support and guidance, prescription drug addiction can be overcome. 

The Recovery Lodge is here to help prescription drug addicts along the road to recovery, offering valuable support and services to help individuals regain control of their lives, including medical supervision, therapy, and a supportive community.

If you are suffering with prescription medications and would like help and support to overcome your personal struggle, our friendly team is here to help – simply call us directly on 01795 431 751.

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