The circumstances of Whitney Houston’s demise have dominated headlines and search trends since news outlets first reported of her death. Her struggle with addiction was covered extensively by the media, and even discussed candidly by Houston herself during several high-profile interviews. Though toxicology reports needed for definitive answers have yet to be released, there has been no delay in rumors and speculation regarding what drugs may have been involved in the loss of this legendary and undeniably gifted songstress. Xanax (generic name alprazolam) and alcohol have been named specifically. Whether or not these substances are ultimately named as factors in Houston’s death, the mere perception that they could be raises questions – particularly about prescription psychiatric drugs. Here are some answers.
What is Xanax? – Xanax is a prescription medication for anxiety disorders (some outlets have incorrectly reported that it is an anti-depressant). It works by acting on GABA receptors, the “brakes” of the brain. It is part of the benzodiazepine class of medications and is in a larger group of medications commonly referred to as “downers” or “sedatives.”
While many people with anxiety disorders benefit from treatment with them, benzodiazepines have the potential to become addictive and can be abused. Drugs that people feel the effects of quickly and that leave the system quickly are more likely to be abused. Of the benzodiazepines, Xanax is one of the fastest acting and most potent.
Are all anxiety medications potentially addictive? – No. There are other kinds of medication for anxiety that affect the brain differently than Xanax and the other benzodiazepines.
Are drugs like Xanax dangerous? – All drugs have risks, which increase when they are not used as they should be. For example, overdoses of the commonly used over-the-counter drug Tylenol are the leading cause of acute liver failure in the U.S. Benzodiazepines like Xanax can put the brakes on the brain too much, particularly the part that controls breathing. When too high a dose of these medications is used, especially if they are combined with other substances that affect breathing – such as alcohol – breathing can become too slow or shallow or even stop completely. Per SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), over three quarters of benzodiazepine-related ER visits in 2002 involved at least two substances. Alcohol was by far the most common second substance. Doctors who prescribe these medications routinely warn patients not to drink alcohol while taking them. Medications like Xanax can often be used safely as long as they are used as prescribed.
Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson is a psychiatrist who trained at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School residency. She is the founder and chief editor of BlackMentalHealthNet.com, a psychoeducational website.