by SIOBHAN COSTIGAN
On the evening of 13 September 2007, a gifted young Philosophy student who had just completed her PhD got up suddenly from the computer she was working on in the study of her parent’s home in the leafy Sydney suburb of Lavender Bay. Barefoot and wearing only her pyjamas (which she had changed into only minutes earlier in preparation for bed), she left the house and walked out into the cold, dark night. Ten minutes later, with a blank and vacant expression on her face, she climbed onto a ledge and plunged twenty metres to her death.
That girl was my youngest sister, Mairead, who died while in an apparent sleepwalking state, which investigating detectives attributed to her intake of the controversial sleep medications Stilnox (zolpidem) and Imovane (zopiclone). Mairead had no history of depression or mental illness, and no history of drug use or abuse.
She had been taking Stilnox and Imovane exactly as directed by her GP, though she had been prescribed the drugs over a longer period than is recommended. The postmortem toxicology report showed that she had taken only one tablet very shortly before her death, and there were no other drugs or alcohol found in her system.
This class of drugs (known as ‘z drugs’) have been the subject of intense media coverage in Australia in recent times, and both zolpidem and zopiclone have been associated with a range of neurological and psychiatric effects, including sleep walking, sleep driving, sleep cooking, sleep eating and sleep sex. Most recently, they’ve been back in the media after the Olympic swimming champion Grant Hackett revealed that he had developed a strong addiction to Stilnox, which he used regularly during his career, and which he now describes as “evil”.
Mamamia readers might recall the story of Sam Goddard – a young man who suffered an horrific brain injury during a soccer match, and who was given little chance of recovery. His devoted fiancée, Sally Nielsen, had discovered after much research that zolpidem had been used successfully in overseas trials to treat patients with severe brain injuries, and had even managed to successfully wake several patients from long-term comas.
While I was as heartened as every other reader to hear about Sally’s successful quest in ‘re-awakening’ Sam, the story set alarm bells ringing for me and no doubt for the thousands of other individuals and families who have been adversely affected by this class of drug, because it begged the very obvious question – what kind of sleeping tablet is capable of waking someone from a long-term coma?
The fact is that scientists themselves admit that they do not know exactly what it is that drugs like Stilnox do to the human brain. What we do know is that they cause a frightening array of bizarre adverse reactions in a significant number of people who take them, and at the moment, there is no way of knowing whether you will be one of those people who experiences no ill effects at all, or one of those who, like my 30 year old sister, pays the ultimate price.
In Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald, there was an article about a new review of Stilnox and similar drugs, which was conducted by sleep expert Professor Shane Darke, from the national drug and research centre at the University of NSW. The article says:
“Stilnox and similar drugs contributed to the deaths of more than a third of the people who were taking them when they died violently or unexpectedly in NSW between 2001 and 2010, according to drug experts who reviewed the deaths… His study identified 91 deaths in which drugs containing zolpidem were involved, including 31 poisonings and two falls from great heights involving abrupt or bizarre behaviour.”
I know, of course that insomnia itself can be crippling, and understand the desperation of people who would try anything to get a decent night’s sleep. But there are many alternatives out there – aside from the other sleep medications on the market that have been around longer and are better understood, such as benzodiazepines, as well as more natural alternatives like melatonin, there are many other treatment options available that do not involve drugs at all.
My family and I, along with the families of other victims, have been campaigning for the banning of this drug for use as a sleep medication for the past few years. We have had some success in getting a ‘black box’ warning added to the packet, but have yet to see it re-scheduled as a Schedule 8 medication (meaning that it would be much harder to obtain a prescription for) or banned outright as a sleep medication, which is our ultimate aim.
As such, we have set up a petition, calling for the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), our national drug regulatory body, to ban z drugs, including Stilnox and Imovane, for the treatment of insomnia and other sleep- related disorders. We have over 4,000 signatures so far, but are aiming to reach 10,000 before we send it to Parliament and to the TGA.
You can also find our Facebook page here.
My sister Mairead was a beautiful, intelligent, vibrant and happy young woman who did not deserve to die in the prime of her life and in such a violent and tragic manner. My family and I will continue this fight in her name until z drugs are off the market for the treatment of sleep disorders, so that nobody else ever has to experience the devastation and heartache we’ve experienced over the past few years.
If you need immediate help, you can contact:
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78
SANE Australia has fact sheets on mental illness as well as advice on getting treatment. Visit www.sane.org or call 1800 18 SANE (7263).
Siobhán Costigan is a creative director, copywriter and aspiring documentary filmmaker. She lives in Sydney with her partner and their two beautiful boys.
Have you or your friends and family had experience with sleeping tablets? What has your experience been? Do you think drugs like Stilnoc and Imovane can do more harm than good?