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The Bristol Cable

Why are young people turning to prescription drugs?


The Cable speaks to John McGuirk, team leader and therapist at Off the Record, a mental health charity supporting 11-25 year olds.

Maria da Silva is a trainee on the Bristol Cable Media Lab 2018.

“As soon as you realize that it’s an easy way out, an easy way to cope, it makes you feel that bit happier,” says Sabrina, a final year student at Bristol University. “You’re not worried about the things that you were worried about before. But when that’s gone, it all comes back.”

“A young person isn’t usually taking prescription drugs for kicks,”

Sabrina’s describing the feeling of taking Valium, a branded benzodiazepine (part of the family of drugs commonly known as minor tranquilizers), which are often prescribed for sleep and anxiety.

In the last year Xanax, also a benzodiazepine, has also made the headlines. There was talk of doctors warning of an emerging crisis and that the drug was putting lives at risk.

Beyond legal prescriptions, research by the Oxford Internet Institute also revealed that the UK accounts for 22% of all global trade of Xanax on the dark web, making it the second-largest market for untraceable online sales of Xanax in the world.

Behind this media frenzy, we sometimes forget to ask, why are young people turning to prescription drugs?

The Cable caught up with John McGuirk, a therapist from the mental health charity Off the Record, to talk about this issue.

McGuirk invites people to shift their attention away from the moral panic that sometimes follows when drugs and young people are used in the same sentence. Instead, he suggests, we need to explore why young people are needing to find a coping strategy in the first place.

“Is it OK?”

This is the first question McGuirk raises when talking about young people and drug taking. He points out how many young people are medicated on ADHD medication, which also has an impact on how our neurochemistry functions.

McGuirk says often the taking of medication is often met with, “yeah, that’s a good thing because now that person’s a more functional member of society.”

However we tend to think of non-prescribed use of medications very differently.

McGuirk says the question – ‘is it OK to use these chemicals to regulate our neurochemistry deliberately?’-  is an “ethical question with philosophical undertones” and “one we’re going to have to answer as a culture”.

We leap to the conclusion, he adds, that of course it’s wrong, instead of asking what’s it for, why are people doing it?

“So why are young people taking drugs? Why did my generation drink a lot of alcohol and this generation is more on anti-anxiety drugs for example, what’s that about? I guess the people to ask that question to are the young people,” he says.

John McGuirk, Off The Record. (Photo: Alon Aviram)

The ‘window of tolerance’

McGuirk sums up the reasons young people might be self-medicating with prescription drugs into two broad explanations: to regulate overstimulation or understimulation.

“As humans, we all have a window of tolerance in which we feel we can manage distress.  Sometimes we can experience too much stimulation: I need something to relax me or to reduce the intensity. Or not enough stimulation: I need something to increase the intensity of those feelings, to stop feeling numb.”

The same thing – whether it be over-exercising, self-harm, or taking prescription drugs – can achieve either of those things for different people.

“A young person isn’t usually taking prescription drugs for kicks,” says McGuirk. “It’s because there’s a fundamental need that is not being met in their context. If that’s the case, the best thing you can say is ‘what do you need?’ and begin to meet the need beneath the distress.”

Similarly, Sabrina the university student, said, “If you’re not feeling great and manage to seek help, but then are told you have to be on a waiting list, you’re going to find something else to help you cope.”

McGuirk again emphasizes that all too often we forget that it’s not about, “‘I can’t cope without the drug’, it’s more like, ‘I can’t cope with the intensity of this feeling.'”

A loss in social connection?

Sabrina adds that because people aren’t able to reach out, they turn inwards, taking drugs to support them to cope. McGuirk also links some young people’s anxiety and distress to a sense of increasing social disconnection in our society.

He refers a classic analogy in addiction based on an experiment with rats called ‘rat park’. In short, when you have a rat living in an isolated, bleak cage with both a water and (the heroin substitute) morphine tap available, the experiment showed the rat only used the morphine tap. When the same rat is put in ‘rat wonderland’ with lots of other rats, it, along with the majority of other rats, barely touched the morphine tap.

McGuirk says that young people in particular have a hard time creating close connections with others that involve “sharing vulnerability, sharing feelings, being really honest with who we are”.

“If we aim to just solve the prescribed drug thing we won’t solve anything, we could make prescribed drugs illegal, shut down the dark web, it won’t solve anything,” he concludes. “The need will still be there, young people will just find something else to replace it.”


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