Talk given by Luke Montagu at BMA meeting on prescribed drug dependence on 25 February 2016:
Seven years ago I was an entrepreneur running a group of film businesses, which included the UK’s largest film school as well as film production & post-production companies.
But I was worried by the prescription drugs I was taking – an antidepressant and a sleeping pill – as I was getting increasingly tired and forgetful.
In 1990 I had had a bad reaction to a sinus operation. My GP diagnosed me with one of the great falsehoods of modern medicine – ‘a chemical imbalance’ – and put me on antidepressants and later sleeping pills as the antidepressants made me wired.
In 2009 – 19 years and hundreds of prescriptions later – another doctor admitted me to hospital to detox from the sleeping pills.
Three days after the drug was removed I entered a hell which can only be understood by those who have been there. My brain felt as though it had been torn in two, my ears screeched with tinnitus, sounds blared and colours distorted. I couldn’t talk or think or move.
After a few weeks, the intensity lessened. But I was forced to resign from the company I had worked so hard to build, as I could no longer function. I spent the next three years mostly sitting at home, unable even to read a book.
I then decided to come off the antidepressant and new symptoms appeared, including intense agitation and burning pins and needles. I’m now five years drug free, and it still hurts like hell.
I sued my doctor and we settled out of court for nearly £1.4 million. The lawyers took almost half of that, and the rest doesn’t begin to cover my lost earnings over these lost years.
With gritted teeth, I would have accepted my status as an outlier on the bell curve. But I went online and discovered communities of thousands of sufferers from all over the world.
You cannot fail to be moved by the suffering and loss; the effects on mothers, children and marriages, on good people who have worked hard to build good lives, only to see them implode as they struggle to cope with quite intolerable symptoms.
And then listen to them describe the double injustice of having their suffering denied, of doctors refusing to accept that it could possibly be the drugs.
It can take months or years just to taper off. Once off, it can take several years to recover from the neurological damage leading to the complete devastation of lives. Some don’t make it; every other month I come across someone who has taken their life rather than put up with one more day of extreme suffering.
And the situation is clearly getting worse. Does anyone in this room really believe that we need almost 60 million prescriptions in England for antidepressants alone, enough for one for every man woman and child, an increase of 500% since 1992? Why is this number going up? Because – like benzos – people can’t get off these addictive drugs, more and more are hooked.
There are a handful of charities helping these sufferers, and yet two of these have recently been forced to close due to lack of funding.
And just to be clear – there are virtually no NHS services for this cohort of patients, yet surely the NHS has a particular moral duty to help patients who are suffering because of NHS treatment?
Promises are made by successive health ministers and yet they fail to follow through, saying that it is now the responsibility of local authorities to provide these services – services which of course never materialise in this age of austerity.
I have been campaigning on this issue for a few years now, and have concluded that the only way we are likely to see change is by persuading the medical establishment that it is time to put your hands up and do something about this issue. Ministers and governments will come and go, but your institutions are permanent fixtures with the power to change prescribing practices.
So what’s needed? The BMA’s overview of stakeholder feedback suggests that – amazingly – we mostly seem to agree. Specialist support services, improved medical training, more research, adherence to prescribing guidelines and the creation where necessary of new ones. Top of my list is a new national helpline for prescribed drug dependence, just like Talk to Frank for illicit drugs.
Beyond this we need a change in culture. Doctors need to be better at saying no. Whatever the demands of the patient, doctors must stop and think before handing over that first prescription which for so many becomes a slippery slope into dependence and misery.
I’ll end with a reminder of a quote which has helped me get through these past few years. ‘In some ways,’ said Victor Frankl the psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor, ’suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.’ I hope that today we have reached a moment of meaning – please let’s do our best to seize it.