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The dangers of taking tranquilizers lightly

Dr Uzma Ambareen cautions journalists from over-the-counter solutions

In our workshops, journalists would often share that they sometimes take a pill to relax or sleep better. Working in the media in Pakistan is already stressful but when add to that the strains that everyone faces at home from time to time, life often becomes unbearable. It is sometimes easier to just take an over-the-counter tablet than see proper medical advice or counseling if the problems persist for a long period of time and coping becomes hard.

"A lot of medicines that we keep handy at home and in our handbags are NOT antidepressants," warns Dr Uzma Ambareen, the psychiatrist associated with the Wellbeing Centre at CEJ. "They are tranquilizers and anti-anxiety drugs. These are the kind of drugs which make you immediately feel good. This is why people are more likely to use them."

People don't want to take antidepressants because when we tell them it won't have an immediate effect, they don't want to take them, she said. "We tell them antidepressants won't make them fall asleep."

People often think Benzodiazepines are antidepressants, but this is incorrect. "Valium, Ativan, Xanax, these are household names," she added. "People pop them quite often and give them to others. They say it will help you sleep."

A myth about these medicines is that they are "light". People say, "Give us light meds, not heavy ones." Benzodiazepines are for some reason considered "light", she said, perhaps because they are so easily available. "In the US, they are controlled medicines and you cannot just buy them at a pharmacy over the counter," said Dr Uzma. They are given only on prescription. Four copies of a prescription are created: one is with you, the doctor, DEA in DC and one with the pharmacy. But in Pakistan, they can be easily available, which is a problem.

What are some tranquilizers, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications?

Benzodiazepines
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Bromazepam (Lexotanil)
- Clonazepam (Rivotril, Naze)
- Alprazolam (Xanax, Alp, Nervin)
- Frisium (Clobazam)
Buspirone
Zolpidem
Melatonin

What are the risks of taking Benzodiazepines?
Sedation
Impaired coordination
Decrease in blood pressure
Slurred speech
Dizziness
Tolerance
Dependence
Withdrawal (seizures)
Problems with memory and concentration

Always consult a doctor before taking any antidepressants or medication. Do not self-prescribe.

Talk to a mental health professional, a psychiatrist who can guide you.

Reliable websites to consult:
Mayo Clinic
Harvard Clinic

This article is based on an IBA-CEJ workshop on 'Depression, anxiety, medicine' held December 11, 2019 in Karachi at the IBA with Dr Uzma Ambareen.

Profile of clinical psychiatrist Dr Uzma Ambareen

Dr Uzma is one of Pakistan's best known clinical psychiatrists. She has been part of the IBA-CEJ Wellbeing Centre free counselling service since 2018.

She did her residency training in Psychiatry from Hahnema University and Brown University, US and her fellowship in Public Psychiatry from Columbia University, US. Dr Uzma has been the Medical Director of The Recovery House in Karachi since 2013 and runs her own practice.

Since her return to Pakistan in 1998, she has been associated with the Pakistan Association for Mental Health. She has served as Clinical Director at the Institute of Behavior Sciences and subsequently at the Free Mental Health Clinic.

Apart from Psychiatric Rehabilitation, her areas of interest include community psychiatry, public mental health awareness, individual psychotherapy and family therapy.