More than 40 million American adults are currently diagnosed as having anxiety, making it the most common mental health disorder in the United States. Judging by the numbers, it seems as if our country is experiencing a collective nervous breakdown. But perhaps what should really be causing our angst is the all-too-common—and some say dangerous—way we’ve come to treat our unease: with a benzodiazepine prescription.
Come summer, when the high desert heat rolls into Durango, waves of fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia settle into Jennifer Roeder’s body. The 47-year-old, who resembles Bonnie Raitt, can’t think clearly. She’s easily overwhelmed by stress, noise, and large crowds. Her heart races and she feels dizzy and weak, short of breath. She often takes to her bedroom, drawing the curtains and lying down with the air conditioning cranked up. When the sun sinks low and twilight finally begins to cool the day, she walks the hills around her southwestern Colorado town, trying to calm her raging mind and wayward body, both of which have been ravaged by a 10-year battle with benzodiazepines.
On a 93-degree scorcher in early July, Roeder sits in a Starbucks. She is articulate and intelligent and has spent the past week on the Front Range visiting her 16-year-old daughter, who lives in Longmont. “I had goals,” Roeder says. “I intended to get a master’s degree. I wanted to work as a counselor. I had big plans.” This was before she was prescribed benzodiazepines—a wildly popular family of psychotropic drugs used to treat anxiety that includes Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan. “I lost everything,” she says, including her health, her career, and ultimately the ability to care for her daughter. These days, Roeder is on a mission to warn others about what she says are serious risks associated with benzos. But today she is struggling: It’s because of the drugs’ lingering side effects that the heat has become so insufferable for her.
Forty miles away in Fort Collins, Dr. Scott Shannon, 57, is waging his own war against benzos, which have been one of the go-to treatments for anxiety disorders in the United States for 60 years. An avid runner and snowboarder with a graying mustache and soul patch and a laid-back demeanor, Shannon’s fight is altogether different than Roeder’s. In 2010, Shannon opened the Wholeness Center, the country’s largest and most comprehensive integrative psychiatry clinic, where he has been pioneering a new approach to mental wellness; one that favors a mind-body-spirit approach rather than psychiatric labeling and prescriptions.