It’s been a common claim to folks with a fear of flying that the chances of dying in a plane crash are much lower than the chances of losing your life in a car accident. This claim is true. Now if I said you’re statistically more likely to die from a drug overdose than a car accident, would you believe it?
Well, you should. According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, auto-accident related fatalities have decreased in the last several years, while casualties caused by prescription medications have increased by incredible numbers throughout the last decade — and continue to climb.
A study in 2009 reported traffic-related accidents caused 36,284 deaths that year, compared to drug-related casualties that caused as many as 37,485 deaths. The numbers reflect all drug deaths, but surprisingly, prescription medications account for a majority of the overdoses. Antianxiety medications such as Xanax, painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin and muscle relaxers such as Soma have been reported to take more lives than cocaine and heroin combined. Antidepressants, which can double as seizure medications, are also on the list of excessively overused or abused prescription medications.
In an interview conducted with the Los Angeles Times, Amy B. Bohnert, a researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School said, “What’s really scary is we don’t know a lot about how to reduce prescription deaths. It’s a wonderful medical advancement that we can treat pain, but we haven’t figured out the safety belt yet.” Essentially, prescription drug abuse is a serious problem with no obvious solution.
The problem is right in front of us every single day, and oftentimes, we do not even see it. There are few treatment options available for prescription drug abuse unlike those offered for addiction to alcohol and drug abuse. Too often the users of these murderous legal drugs are oblivious to how dependent they are on the medications until it is too late. Others are so used to the way the drugs “solve” their problems (e.g. pain, depression, anxiety, etc.), they feel if it helps them, it may help others too and feel it is safe to offer their medications to others. The direct result of misusing medications not prescribed to the user taking them is often harmful and sometimes fatal.
A recent and home-hitting example of this self-medicating outcome is the story of 17-year-old Kelsea Phelps. While visiting a friend’s home one day, she mentioned to the girl’s mother she had a sore throat that had been bothering her for several days. The friend’s mother, Laura Wion, gave Kelsea a small bottle of methadone with hand-written instructions attached to it. On Aug. 22, 2006, Kelsea’s mother, Tracy Moe, went to wake Kelsea for school that day and found her unresponsive in her bed with the pills on the bedside table.
“I died that very moment with my daughter. Now I’m a broken woman. She killed my daughter. She killed my son. And she killed me,” Moe said at Wion’s sentencing.
Wion, a mother of three with severe mental issues and a prescription drug addiction, was sentenced to six years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter and child abuse causing death. The story is not only devastating, but also close to home. The Phelps family resides in Santee and Kelsea and her brother both went to my high school. Her vigil is held on my birthday every year and I am personal friends with their mother, Tracy.
So if Xanax makes an appearance at the next party or a friend offers you a prescription painkiller to self-treat a headache or back pain, think twice. Drugs are drugs, prescription or not. If you cannot get it from your own doctor for a legitimate reason, do not risk your life for it. We all know California drivers are crazy. If it is statistically safer to be flying down the freeway with the cell phone-distracted, the speeders and the road ragers than it is to pop a pill for a good time, we should all rethink the risk factor of prescription medications.
Aside from taking personal steps to assure you are safe from drug overdose, the CDC recommends states adopt prescription drug education programs and introduce drug control policies that states such as Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia have done. There are also local programs in most American cities — including San Diego — offering drug “drop-offs” where people in possession of prescription medications can safely rid their homes of unneeded or unused medications with no questions asked. The CDC has said, however, these medication collections rarely surface life-threatening medications, but the problem itself is a good start.
—Heather Mathis is a journalism jouior