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Xanax pills Benzodiazepines are a class of tranquilizing pharmaceuticals, including Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, which depress the central nervous system to treat anxiety, insomnia and certain types of seizures. (Photo: Shutterstock)

While America wrestles with its opioid crisis, another closely linked epidemic remains largely under the radar. It involves benzodiazepines (known as benzos), a class of tranquilizing pharmaceuticals, including Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, which depress the central nervous system to treat anxiety, insomnia and certain types of seizures and convulsions. These drugs decrease brain activity to reduce feelings of anxiety or induce sleep. They are designed to help patients overcome everything from panic disorders and public speaking nerves, to severe insomnia and fear of flying.

The drug was first made available around 1960. By the late ‘70s, benzos were the most prescribed medications in the world. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s concerns around dependency began to arise, leading to lawsuits in the U.K. against the makers of Ativan. Despite these concerns prescriptions in the U.S. continued to rise throughout the ‘90s. As primary care physicians embraced these drugs for their efficiency in treating certain conditions, the U.S. saw a 67 percent increase in individuals prescribed them between 1999 and 2013, all while quantity prescribed per individual also increased. On a parallel track, deaths involving benzos rose at an alarming pace, with the U.S. seeing an 830 percent increase in overdose mortality rates among women between the ages of 30 and 64 between 1996 and 2017, from below one death per 100,000 to over 5 deaths per 100,000.

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