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Death by Prescription

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People were saddened, but no one was really surprised back in the glory days of rock n' roll when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died of drug overdoses, or when Richard Burton, Jack Kerouac, and Billie Holiday all died from alcohol-related causes. Their deaths may have been "accidental," but hey, they were certainly pushing the old envelope. Back then, the drugs of choice were all the ones your mother warned you against, like alcohol, cocaine, and amphetamines. Today, however, as noted in the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses were the cause of 38,329 deaths in 2010. And 60 percent of those were from prescription drugs!

When Whitney Houston fell asleep in a bathtub right before the Grammy Awards and never woke up, she had imbibed a cocktail of cocaine and prescription drugs -- 12 different medications prescribed by five different doctors, including anti-anxiety and muscle relaxant meds. Heath Ledger (who never got to see himself as the Joker in The Dark Knight), Brittany Murphy (who starred in such films as Clueless, Girl Interrupted, and Just Married), Anna Nicole Smith (Playboy playmate and former reality TV star), and Michael Jackson (the king of pop) all overdosed on legal medication.

We can criticize and/or envy the harried lifestyle of the rich and famous, but in fact they make up a very small percentage of the thousands of accidental prescription medicine deaths each year; the great majority of these deaths happen to ordinary folks like your son or your sister. Has our stressed-out, multi-tasking, anxiety-causing way of life turned us into a nation of addicts? Are we seeking out doctors who don't mind giving us multiple prescriptions for every little ache and pain and angst? We may not have the money to fund an at-home doc to administer an anesthesia so we can sleep, like Michael Jackson did, but we can probably find a couple of docs to keep us well supplied in Ambien, Xanax, Vicodan, and Oxycodone.

And if you're getting your drugs from multiple doctors, who's keeping track of possible drug interactions? What if that Ambien you take to sleep at night is toxic when mixed with the wine you drink at dinner and the anti-anxiety med you take to get through work and the painkiller for your aching back? No wonder drug ODs have overtaken deaths from traffic accidents and guns! Yet most of us are still more worried about random gun violence than about the pills we pop with no qualms -- after all, the doctor prescribed them!

The Mayo Clinic has reported that almost 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug a day, and more than 50 percent are on at least two prescriptions, while 20 percent are on at least five prescription meds. The most common prescriptions are for antibiotics, antidepressants, and painkiller opioids.

So what are we going to do? Obviously, something has to be done about pharmacists and doctors who don't use their state's prescription drug database, like in Florida where "doctor shopping" to obtain multiple prescriptions for narcotic pain pills runs rampant. And there are other legal efforts that can be made by various federal and state government agencies. But in reality, what has to change is our automatic reaching for a magic pill to take care of depression, anxiety and insomnia, and our reliance on opioid drugs to relieve pain.

Anxiety, depression, stress, sleeplessness, pain -- they can all be addressed in ways that are more self-empowering and hold no danger of accidental death. How about meditation, biofeedback, exercise and fresh air, better nutrition, going to bed at a decent hour, and holistic techniques such as acupuncture and massage? But beyond the natural and energy-centered ways of de-stressing, attention must also be paid to learning how to process emotional trauma without resorting to drugs. If we develop a decent amount of self-awareness (think: meditation and therapy) we are not likely to pop a pill first and ask questions later. We also need to have a lot more education about the dangers of pharmaceuticals, especially about their interactions with each other and the potential for accidental death, rather than more commercials on television proclaiming their benefits. Risk versus benefit is the name of the game.

So before you reach for a pill, why not try doing something on your own first? What you may really need for that mental or physical issue is something that addresses the underlying emotional cause. Maybe it's time to really reconsider that job or that relationship that is the real source of the problem. At the very least, ask your doctors a lot of questions when they prescribe something for you, and go online to research the pros and cons of the drug. And be sure to ask about interactions with other medications you may be taking. Accidental death is all too real -- it's not just for celebs!

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

Spiritual teacher, health & wellness expert and New York Times best-selling author Deborah King makes frequent appearances on national TV. Her latest book, Entangled in Darkness: Seeking the Light, explores ways to keep our psyches healthy.

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