Revisiting anti-anxiety medication on campus: The good, the bad, the ugly

Jake Schwebach

Jake Schwebach
Jake Schwebach

I published a column last June responding to a New York Times report that “anxiety has now surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students.” I cautioned my readers to be wary of pharmaceuticals as a solution to the rising anxiety crisis. Antidepressants and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety disorders.

I spent too much time and energy making June’s article as objective-sounding as possible but, the truth is, it was driven by extreme emotion. I am closer to the issue than I feel comfortable admitting. I also sense a collective urgency among my peers when it comes to addressing the issue of mental health, especially when it concerns suicide.

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I have a love-hate relationship with anti-anxiety medication. It helped me to overcome social phobia and depression in the past, but I hate using it as a crutch. Last June, I ignored the benefits of pharmaceuticals to further an argument, and the argument wasn’t objective. I rejected the entire field of psycho-pharmacology and found any information to fit my distaste. I now view that article as potentially damaging to those struggling with anxiety. Opinion writers should empower their audience, not themselves.

I wrote that “anti-anxiety medication is a necessary reservation for those with chronic and acute episodes of anxiety,” and panic, which is true. But it should not be a last resort when all else has failed – when one feels hopeless beyond repair. I argued that anti-anxiety medication is a form of avoidance and only intensifies anxiety’s grip. That is not true if it is used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy and closely monitored by a psychiatrist. I also reported an increased risk of suicide among teenagers taking antidepressants. That, too, is controversial.

A Harvard study reported that, “Suicide attempts rose by 22 percent in teens and 34 percent in young adults,” when FDA warnings caused Zoloft and Prozac – two commonly prescribed antidepressants – to drop 25-30 percent among teenagers and young adults from 2003-2004. Even so, the correlation between antidepressants and suicide remains ambiguous and a point of debate. Because of this uncertainty, I urge extreme self-awareness if you and your psychiatrist decide that antidepressants will be effective in relieving anxiety. If even remotely suicidal thoughts arise, tell your doctor. Antidepressants alone are not a solution for anxiety, and be wary of pharmaceutical companies advertising them as such.

Then there is the drug abuse scenario.

Those prone to addiction and impulsive behavior are at increased risk to abuse the class of anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines – Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, etc. The risk of abuse is similar to that of alcohol or prescription painkillers. In cases of extreme anxiety, it is easy to take a higher dosage than prescribed without the intent of abuse. You can quickly become dependent even if you have no intention of using the medication to get high. For recovering alcoholics, antidepressants can help reduce impulsive behavior and don’t have the same risk of abuse. But you don’t have to be an alcoholic to misuse anti-anxiety medications and you may not even realize you are doing so. The consequences of drug abuse can be life-ending. 

This is a topic that can’t be condensed into a book, let alone one column. So why write it, anyway? Well, I constantly see columns arguing that today’s stages of adulthood are more ambiguous and difficult to navigate than they were for past generations. Mental illness and instability seem to be on the rise. Yet, it is still a source of shame and embarrassment for many. That shouldn’t be the case. If you or someone you know is struggling, start with the CSU Health Network counseling services. They can be reached at 970-491-4693, and walk-in appointments are available. They are located at 100 Aylesworth Hall. 

Collegian Columnist Jake Schwebach can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @jschway.