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Valium’s 50th birthday: little to celebrate

5 May 2013

5 May 2013

A recent report published by the charity MIND – which paints a troubling, and important portrait of Britons driven to alcohol, cigarettes and prescription medication to differing extents by the stress of working-life – makes it a prescient moment to cast the mind back to a series of very strange goings-on.

The time was the late 1950s, the place a hospital canteen in the North of England. Perhaps pickings in that week’s British Medical Journal had been lean – or patients that day exasperating – because the topic of conversation was a newspaper article about a Swiss circus-master who had found a drug to calm his tigers.

A series of regrettable decisions – which still piece together to make faint sense, like fragments of an argument remembered after a long lunch – prompted one young doctor to phone the drug’s manufacturer. His offer was to test the compound, and its predecessor, on the then unwitting inhabitants of Sheffield. After he, and others, relayed the positive results to Hoffman La Roche, Valium – a drug which might otherwise have remained the preserve of big cats – was marketed in the UK in 1963.

Few decisions have proved more detrimental to the reputation of young doctors – or damaging to popular culture – than this show of youthful over-enthusiasm.

Still known as Mother’s Little Helper – but more likely to be given to nervous air passengers, than the anxious housewives who The Rolling Stones describe in their song – Valium has been eschewed, for the most part, by modern society. The drug peaked in popularity in the late 1970s, before tumbling from grace in the largest ever class-action lawsuit attempted against drug manufacturers in British history.

Anyone who asks a doctor for the drug is likely to be brow-beaten – while any prescription will be issued with a whispered caution – or at worst a mild ticking-off. On account of the tranquilizer’s ‘pleasant side-effects’ – which led its inventor’s wife to forbid him from taking it – Valium is now widely abused. Yet it is remembered as the first blockbuster drug – a wonder pill, sold aggressively using gender stereotypes usually confined to cave-art.

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One advert, entitled ’35, single and Psychoneurotic’ describes ‘Jan’ – a frail, wholesome lady, resembling Betty Crocker – who has ‘never found a man to match up to her father’. Jan’s big problem is that she ‘realises that she’s in a losing pattern – and may never marry’.

Considerably fewer adverts seem aimed at men – but one, ‘Women dominate his universe – psychic tension can rule his life’, shows, using a series of stern matriarchs – complete with crimped care and pantomime pouts – how nagging wives and mothers-in-law might drive the modern man to Valium.

If Roche’s adverts seem more concerned with bumblingly undoing every victory in the drive for gender-equality since female suffrage, then its legacy – in the way we use medication – remains wide-reaching and troubling. Valium may be waning – but its sales, which exceeded one billion dollars, reveal a link between over-medication and over-consumption, which lingers to this day.

Commenting in its inventor’s obituary for The New York Times, Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman describes how Valium constituted a milestone in psychopharmacology, by helping to create generations of drugs which were more precise and selective in their activity. These drugs now exist, but the way we use them – writing 46.7 million prescriptions in 2011 – represents an approach to depression in Britain, which, 35 years after Valium’s heyday, is no less glum or scattergun.

The new antidepressants – or Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors – work differently to tranquilizers like Valium, but have replaced them as the weapons of choice for treating anxiety. Prozac, which recently celebrated its 25th birthday, is the most distinguished – and arguably as notorious. Troubled journalist Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote about it. American psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer listened to it. British politician Nick Clegg complained about it, in a speech to The Guardian Public Services Summit in 2008.

In the speech, Clegg made some excellent points about Britain’s overreliance on medication, and how it features too prominently in our treatment of mental-health problems, when for many therapy would be more effective. Yet Clegg – like many others – misses the point. The rate at which we prescribe these drugs does not necessarily mean that we are lacking psychological services – though we certainly are – but that we are over using drugs which don’t work.

Professor Malcolm Lader, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology at King’s College London – who was first to warn of Valium’s dangers – was keen to place the problem of the tranquilizers, and the SSRIs, within the same curve.

‘This is not one problem,’ Professor Lader said. ‘It’s part of a general over-reliance on psychotropic medication, particularly for people who are less ill, or who may, in fact, be within normal limits. They are unhappy, haven’t got help with things or haven’t got social support, and they don’t have access to psychological treatments, which are usually very effective for them.’

It’s critical to point out that the SSRI antidepressants are indispensable to those suffering from serious anxiety disorders, but the evidence that they work for others – who may fall within normal ranges of emotion – is at very best, scant. In short, if like most, you lead a busier life – involving more debt, less fun, demanding children, and a house which is depreciating in value at the same pace as a Greek time-share – an antidepressant is unlikely to help.

Like Valium – which first gave lie to the belief that drugs could comfortably ameliorate all worry without serious consequences – there is also an increasingly robust body of evidence against the SSRIs. Many of their problems relate to their ability to cause, or worsen, suicidal feelings, particularly in the young. Each drug has been implicated in scandal – most notably Paroxetine, or Seroxat.

Though cheap, a large number of the 46.7 million prescriptions written in 2011 may not have actually helped anyone – which means our use of them to treat those experiencing life’s ups-and-downs equates to behaviour which is baffling and recalcitrant. The saddest thing, though, is that we are giving false hope to those who are suffering – when it may actually be kinder, if harder – to tell them that antidepressants won’t help.

Mother’s Little Helper is synonymous with mass-medication – but on its 50th ‘birthday’ we prescribe antidepressants at a far higher rate than we ever did at the height of its popularity. By convincing us that happiness can be bought safely and easily with a pill, the drug constitutes a work of nefarious genius.


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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Valium sandwich, anyone?

  • Will Nicoll

    Glad you enjoyed the piece!

    Firstly, your claim that, ‘SSRIs are generally not
    administered for anxiety’ is untrue. The SSRIs are licensed, indicated and
    prescribed for a number of anxiety disorders – notably Panic Disorder &
    GAD.

    It is also recognised – not only by critics of the SSRIs,
    but by their supporters – that the symptomatic crossover between anxiety and
    mild depressive illness is very marked. In the Hamilton Rating Scale (HAM-D)
    which is used for diagnostic purposes, 15 of the 21 criteria for depression
    relate to the presence of anxiety. In short, an enormous number of patients are
    prescribed SSRIs for this reason.

    Careful, too, with Google-doc non-sequiturs about the
    depletion of Serotonin in the synapses – and ‘neurochemical depression’. This
    is a really tricky area of psychopharmacology which you liken to simple hypertension – you run the risk of ‘misleading’.

  • Robert Forrest

    I always thought that “Mother’s Little Helper” was Drinamyl – a mixture of dexamphetamine and amylobarbitone- not Valium.

  • Overleaf

    This article is misleading and a disservice.

    SSRI’s are generally not administered for anxiety, but for neurochemical depression.

    There are millions who lack or lose the ability for the serotonin to hang around the synapse for a long enough time. The result is cognitive weakness, confusion, inability to think straight or perform complex thinking activity. SSRI is for this reason.

    For the author to claim that SSRI is for anxiety shows that he has little idea how the brain works and what the function of anti-depressants are.

    It is not all psychological. If your blood pressure is high you take medication. If your serotonin pressure is too low, you need to take medication.

    • Will Nicoll

      Glad you enjoyed the piece!

      Firstly, your claim that, ‘SSRIs are generally not
      administered for anxiety’ is untrue. The SSRIs are licensed, indicated and
      prescribed for a number of anxiety disorders – notably Panic Disorder &
      GAD.

      It is also recognised – not only by critics of the SSRIs,
      but by their supporters – that the symptomatic crossover between anxiety and mild depressive illness is very marked. In the Hamilton Rating Scale (HAM-D) which is used for diagnostic purposes, 15 of the 21 criteria for depression relate to the presence of anxiety. In short, an enormous number of patients are prescribed SSRIs for this reason.

      Careful, too, with Google-doc non-sequiturs about the
      depletion of Serotonin in the synapses – and ‘neurochemical depression’. This is a really tricky area of psychopharmacology which you liken to simple hypertension – you run the risk of ‘misleading’.

    • http://www.facebook.com/phar.mistice Phar Mistice

      You’re talking as if you know what you’re talking about. Serotonin pressure? I think that idea comes from your ‘way-out-there’ imagination rather than something scientific.

      Are you a brain scientist or something? Serotonin hanging around the synpase for long enough? You’ve been reading too many drug company leaflets.

      And let me guess – you’re on the pills yourself? SSRIs are there to keep shareholders happy. If they make you happy too, then all well and good, but if they suddenly started losing money, they’d be gone as quickly as they arrived.

  • HookesLaw

    Why do I think the author has an axe to grind?
    He says, ‘By convincing us that happiness can be bought safely and easily with a pill’ – but is anyone or anything trying to do that? Is this the way to prize winning journalism… to set up aunt sallies?

    I suspect that it is not happiness patients seek but an absence of terror and anxiety. Tut tut … if only these weak people could just pull themselves together and ignore the chemical imbalances in their brains.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/opinion/sunday/10antidepressants.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    • Overleaf

      Exactly. SSRI is for serotonin imbalance. Not for having a nagging mother inlaw.

      • http://www.facebook.com/phar.mistice Phar Mistice

        SSRI is for shareholder dividends.

    • http://www.facebook.com/phar.mistice Phar Mistice

      Chemical imbalances in their brains? Says who?

  • WillyTheFish

    There is of course a traditional herbal alternative.
    Unfortunately it is illegal.

    • Daniel Maris

      UNfortunately it can produce paranoia and anxiety in many people – doesn’t just dull the mind.

      • ayequeue

        I have never heard of anyone dying from a cold turkey from marijuana,

        but there have been quite a few who’ve died from a cold turkey from benzos.

        • iviv44

          maybe, but I do know a number of people who have come to untimely ends as a result of severe psychoses brought on by marijuana.

          • WillyTheFish

            Whereas I have smoked the herb that cheers daily for over 40 years without harm. Neither have I ever met anyone in that time who has been harmed by it. Funny old world.

            • Eddie

              Yes, a funny old world with idiots like you in it who think that one anecdotal story of your good health, and your utter ignorance of others’ suffering, proves anything but your own ignorance and stupidity.
              Cannabis does not ‘cheer’ many people, ultimately, and if you did some research instead of gazing glass-eyed at the world, you’d see most prisoners, criminals and mental patients have experience of it.
              Moreover, the cannabis industry funds organised crime who are involved in hard drugs, murder, people trafficking and child abuse – which your cannabis usage funds. Think of that when you’re having a puff, do you?
              And it causes lung cancer. Enjoy…

              • WillyTheFish

                First of all, I fail to see why you feel the need to be so rude and aggressive merely because you disagree with me.

                How do I display ‘ignorance and stupidity’?

                Your assertion that “most prisoners, criminals and mental patients have experience of it.” – even if it is true, proves nothing. That same group of people may also be tea drinkers, though I doubt that you would ascribe their problems to that habit.

                My ‘anecdotal’ evidence is (when you’re not in sneering mode) personal experience both of the herb and others smokers, over the years, who have partaken without harm.

                I have no knowledge of ‘the cannabis industry’ ‘organised crime’ or your rather hysterical (and anecdotal) generalisations about “hard drugs, murder, people trafficking and child abuse”

                I grow my own herb, organically, and process it into hashish which I smoke neat through a pipe. I enjoy it, there is no evidence that smoking pure cannabis presents a significant cancer risk unlike tobacco which is legal.

                There are many varieties of the herb and the range and varying qualities of the various varieties is comparable with wine – a pleasant and legal drug.

                At present my stock (for personal use) consists of Skunk, Afghani and Californian hash plant. This year I am growing Jamaican, Afghan, Californian and White Widow which is what (all being well) I’ll be smoking next year.

                Californian, in particular, has proved to be a superior substitute for the opioid pills that I was prescribed for lower back pain.

                Rather like wine, cannabis can be used as a folk medicine, and / or safely enjoyed in moderation for recreational purposes.

                Obviously one should only buy good quality produce or, better still, grow one’s own.

                Perhaps you are the one who needs to do some research. Because at present it is clear that you really don’t know what you are talking about.

                • Eddie

                  ‘That same group of people may also be tea drinkers, though I doubt that you would ascribe their problems to that habit.’
                  False argument. Drinking tea does not cause psychosis; tea-dealing and usage is not part of a huge and disgusting amoral organised crime industry to supply the ‘drug’.
                  It is not hysterical to link cannabis usage to organised criminal gangs who are also involved in things that are less ‘cheerful’ and ‘chilled out’ – including exploiting and butchering those who grow the drugs here and overseas, prostitution, people traffikig, child abuse and pawn-ography, an d every nasty vile thing in the world.
                  If you grow your own, and want to make yourself unmotivated, boring and silly, then die of lung cancer like Bob Marley, then that is your business. When you prop up a whole world of crime, are a bad influence on kids and are a rank hypocrite withi it, then that is my business.
                  I say what I see. There is nothing positive in cannabis usage. And I have personal experience too – but do not use that as the basis of my argument. I merely state facts that blow your dopey argument out of the water, maaaaaan.

                  You seem deeply childish. I am sure you wouldn’t even smoke cannabis if you didn’t think it was cool and naughty. Here is an example of your silly ignorant arguments:

                  “There are many varieties of the herb and the range and varying qualities of the various varieties is comparable with wine – a pleasant and legal drug.”

                  Cannabis is not wine, silly – another false argument. It is more like heroin, of which there are various varieties, or perhaps cancer, which comes in several forms too.

                • WillyTheFish

                  “I merely state facts that blow your dopey argument out of the water, maaaaaan.”

                  I’m afraid addressing me as ‘maaaan’ merely displays your rudeness, your ignorance, and your reliance on silly stereotypes.

                  I have had a successful career and am now happily retired. I enjoy the various varieties of the herb that cheers much as wine drinkers enjoy the different varieties of their chosen recreational drug.

                  The idea that cannabis is anything ‘like heroin’ (as you assert) is ludicrous and hysterical.

                  Perhaps a puff of the herb that cheers might do you good – it might make you a little less uptight and abusive on a topic of which you clearly know nothing.

            • iviv44

              If you have been on the stuff for 40 years, in all likelihood your pattern of use is somewhat different to current teenagers. I like chewing coca leaves which I consider pretty safe — but I wouldn’t extrapolate that to all cocaine use.

              • Eddie

                Indeed – an occasional weak cannabis smoke will probably do not harm (except the usual smoking cancer risks) but heavy usage or stronger varieties will in many people. Also, those who smoke cannabis just seem to drift through life, achieving nothing. So boring!
                There is really nothing good about that drug – though if people grow a bit for their own usage at home then that is better than supporting organised crime (who make money out of human misery on a grand scale, all supported by silly hippies being naughty by smoking joints).

      • Eddie

        Indeed – I know several people who have had psychotic episodes from using cannabis, gone loopy loo really with full on delusions and schizophrenia, ended up poor and unemployable.
        Love and Peace, maaaaaan…
        Really, cannabis users are often sad losers who end up in pieces, love.

  • Molly

    Diazepam and the other benzos do help people with crippling anxiety. However, they also cause problems in the same way that alcohol, over-eating or any other form of relief and ‘changing the way I feel’ remedies can. My issue is that the BMA and the government’s CMO seem to treat benzos like cigarettes; they are ‘legal’ but not really ‘good for you’

    What is the REAL truth ? Journalists always decry them, yet are mainly alcoholics we hear and selective medics, peddling their own therapies, pour scorn. Are there no definitive studies? Class actions mean that some miseries wanted money. But would they have all topped themselves years earlier without ‘Mother’s little helper’? As for the advertising ; WTF has stereotyping in Mad Men times got to do with whether they work or not ? Stick to the point ; lives depend upon facts.

  • telemachus

    While we are thinking about valium we think of sleep and we think of going to bed
    Which is a tortuous way of decrying absolutely the scenes of bedroom violence in Thursday’s “The politician’s husband” weakly addressed at the end of the programme by giving a telephone number to phone if affected
    Is such behaviour by the broadcasters what leads us to have events in society such as reported last night and on the next thread by Fraser

    • HookesLaw

      Tortuous indeed but did not stop you getting in a nasty little smear.
      How fortunate rather than tortuous that the events you referred to came to light just in time for the Sunday papers.

      • telemachus

        My point being that the politicians husband contained gratuitous scenes and the BBC have a lot to answer for the degenerate morals of our society.
        Even John Major’s post back to basics indiscretions did not sink so low
        As I said on another thread we all need a moral compass
        Not propping up with valium

        • HookesLaw

          Your point has nothing to do with Valium. I don’t see what Major’s activities or Ashdown’s or Cook’s or the beast of Bolsover’s or anyone’s has to do with Valium.

          The news that the BBC is running a series full of misery with various gratuitous scenes in it is not news at all. More fool you fo0r watching it.

        • James Strong

          I watched The Politician’s Husband and thought that the bedroom scene where he spat on his hand because there was no natural lubrication was pretty shocking. But it was not gratuitous, it was an image to convey the very unpleasant steps that people like that character will take to assert power over others.
          It was a despicable act by that character, and its dramatic purpose was to show one aspect of the politician’s, (politicians’) , lust for power.
          In the later bedroom scene his bid for power failed.

          • telemachus

            Why did we have to see either?

    • Eddie

      No interest in watching this show – but I bet it was written by a woman. All very obsessed with bedroom nonsense and how awful men are as opposed to angelic wives. Yawn. Typical femi-BBC aiming tyo attract the easy meat of an undemanding Mills + Boon largely female audience.

      This female writer would have stolen that scene James mentions below from the American thrillers and pity party women’s fiction and TV dramas she is apeing. Why? Because in the USA most men have mutilated members through the barbaric and unnecessary puritanical rite of circumcision and thus need spit for lubrication, whereas in the UK most men are intact so have natural grease. No need for British me to spit.
      Well, just thought I’d state the evidence clinically and logically. I hope it’s illuminating to ignorant female TV writers.

      • telemachus

        That is a worse statement than the calumny of the programme

        • Eddie

          Worse than mutilating children’s private parts for no good reason?

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