A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the untimely death of mega-pop star Whitney Houston on our depression site. I think we were all shocked by this news because Whitney Houston was relatively young (48) and her death was so sudden. Yet in some ways her early demise seemed a possibility over the years as we watched her struggle with depression, anxiety, and addiction. Although official autopsy reports have not come out yet, news reports indicate that there is a strong possibility that Houston had taken a combination of prescription drugs including Xanax and possibly Valium in addition to drinking alcohol prior to her death. Although the singer was found partially submerged in a bathtub at the time of her death, there is great suspicion that Whitney Houston did not die from drowning but from a prescription drug overdose.
Medications such as Alprazolam (Xanax) and Diazepam (Valium) are part of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. These drugs can be prescribed for a variety of reasons but are used predominantly to treat anxiety and/or panic disorder symptoms. These medications have a relatively quick effect on the central nervous system to produce a calming effect. Yet when one or two benzodiazepines are used at the same time or the individual takes more than the prescribed dosage, there can be disastrous effects for the user. And when you add alcohol to this mix, the danger is even greater. When benzodiazepines are combined with alcohol there is the possibility for your body to basically shut down. Whitney Houston’s heart may have stopped beating because her respiratory system was suppressed.
Medical experts agree that anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax can be addictive for some people. It is one of the most popular prescription drugs and according to the New York Times (2010) it is the 8th most prescribed drug in the U.S. While a great majority of people who are prescribed Xanax are not abusing this medication there are those who are overdosing or combining Xanax with other prescription drugs, street drugs, and/or alcohol. And then there are those who are taking Xanax illegally without a prescription. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2010 that there was an 89% increase in the number of people who visited emergency rooms due to non-medical benzodiazepine use in a four year period between 2004 and 2008. The CDC also reported that the number of emergency room visits due to Xanax in 2008 (104,800) was more than twice the number for another frequently used benzodiazepine, Klonopin (48,400).
Some studies show that one of the reasons that medications such as Xanax may be addictive for some people is that they use the same "reward pathway" as street drugs such as heroin or marijuana.
It is some coincidence that I had just written a post for our anxiety site about the myths of taking anti-anxiety medication about the same time as the media reported that Whitney Houston was dead as the result of a possible overdose of Xanax. At the top of my list is the myth that everyone who takes medication to treat their anxiety, including benzodiazepines such as Xanax, will immediately become addicted. We know that not all Xanax users are addicts or drug abusers but when a celebrity dies of an overdose we tend to blame the medication.
Dr. Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who writes for the Huffington Post went as far as to say: "If it turns out that Whitney was under the influence of Xanax (alprazolam), then there’s a good chance she would be alive today if that drug had never been put on the market." The cause of Whitney Houston’s death is still speculative at this point but this is a bold statement. I suppose I could say the same thing about alcohol. My father, who died at the early age of 34, died due to cirrhosis of the liver, a complication of his alcohol abuse. Would he be alive today if alcohol simply did not exist? Maybe"¦ but I am guessing that this is wishful thinking at best. From what I know of addiction, I believe my father would have simply chosen another substance to abuse.
Whitney Houston had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and had been in rehab at least several times during her career. In an interview with Oprah years ago, Houston would confess to routinely using street drugs including marijuana and cocaine. Prescription drugs including Xanax are just part of the story of Houston’s multiple addictions.
Getting back to my original question: Did Xanax kill Whitney Houston? I am just guessing that the coroner’s report will most likely show that Xanax did play some role in Houston’s death. But the fact remains that if this is true, had she taken Xanax at the dosage prescribed without combining it with other substances, and especially alcohol, she might be alive today. There has to be some personal responsibility on the part of the patient.
On Health Central we keep repeating the message to be wary of combining psychotropic drugs with alcohol. For example I have written a much commented upon post about the possible dangers of taking Adderall (a stimulant medication) with alcohol. In reading some of the comments, you would think that I was recommending prohibition for the millennium. Some people just don’t want to hear about what may happen if you start mixing alcohol and prescription drugs. Whitney Houston, no doubt, heard the same message but her addiction won and she lost her life.
This was such a tragic ending for a mother, a daughter, and a super star with such a bright light. I dare say that Xanax did not kill Whitney Houston, her addictions did. There is a difference.
Every fan of Whitney Houston hopes that her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, will be able to walk in her mother’s footsteps of fame and talent but not succumb to the despair and addiction that her mother did. Only time will tell.
We would like to hear your thoughts on this topic. What do you think really killed Whitney Houston? Do you think that we are too quick to blame prescription medications in the case of misuse and abuse? Does the patient bear any responsibility for not taking a prescription medication as directed? Who do you feel is responsible for Whitney Houston’s death? Let us know your opinions. We are eager to hear from you