Heath Ledger's death is already fading from the headlines, but its real message is going to haunt us all. Many Americans need to take it as a somber reminder about the safety issues around prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs. Many were prepared for Ledger's autopsy to reveal that the actor had been partying and abusing illegal drugs. After all, the tabloid press has addicted most people to the lurid cultural contact high of hearing that "celebrities do lots of drugs." But the facts appear to be different. Ledger was evidently just trying to deal with everyday stuff that we all battle, like insomnia and anxiety. He was desperate for some relief, so he did what many of us have been conditioned to do by high-powered pharmaceutical advertising: he collected a bunch of pills that he may have thought were safe to use together.
Ledger's death: the real message
The result was a "acute intoxication" that killed him silently, in his sleep. His body revealed the presence of two prescription painkillers, two prescription anti-anxiety drugs, and two sleep inducers, one of which is sold over the counter.
Did he get some of the prescriptions in an illegal manner (as some are wondering)? Did the doctors who were prescribing for him not have their brains in gear about other meds he might be taking? The circumstances are still being investigated. But the central fact is this: Ledger may have had a comfort level with handfuls of pills that many of us share with him. Why? Because we're all -- celebrities included -- assured by TV advertising that putting these powerful chemicals into our bodies is no big deal and can only be good for us.
And so this gifted young actor, who had so much to live for, knocked back another capsule or two, and lay down for a nap that turned out to be forever.
Beyond the safety issues of each individual drug available on the market, we know little about how all these drugs can interact with each other in the human body. A physician friend of mine who treats depression and anxiety in AIDS patients emphasizes to me that each person's biochemistry is unique. According to him, there is no such thing as a "safe level" that fits everybody. A chemical interaction among depressants or anti-psychotics or sleep aids or diet drugs that could be safe for one person, or make them mildly sick, could be fulminatingly fatal for another. A lot also depends on the person's age, state of health, alcohol consumption and other factors.
If the inter-reaction isn't fatal, it can still damage vital organs.
So this comment of mine isn't about the ugly revelations, in recent years, that some pharmaceutical companies have tried to sweep drug deaths and adverse side effects under the rug. Nor am I addressing the issue of how complicit the Federal Drug Administration might be, since the FDA has become more and more dependent on pharma fees for its financing. Frankly, I'm not sure that some people in the government or the pharma industry really give a hell about the rest of us out here, as long as they make their pile of money and don't get caught doing anything wrong.
What concerns me is the state of casualness about prescription and over-the-counter drugs that our culture now lives in. Many look at these drugs as a kind of fast food -- take the taco with a glass of water, and in the morning all will be well. Or maybe it's a whole prescription dinner, with a taco, a side order and a drink, meaning several different drugs. If you spend a week studying all the TV ads, and their messages, you begin to wonder how humanity survived for the last 10,000 years without these drugs, because the ads make them seem so necessary, so magical, and so effective.
Sure, the ads also intone a list of side effects and things to watch out for, because that's how the industry covers its butt. But the message of these disclosures evidently doesn't sink nearly as deep as the main message does.
Deaths like Ledger's may happen more often than we think -- especially with old people and teens. These are two groups that are massively over-medicated right now. Old people in institutions are marinated in mind-altering drugs to keep them "manageable." Our society bleats about growing teen addiction to prescription drugs, yet kids spent more time looking at those mesmerizing TV drug ads than anybody else. On top of that, 46 states now require Teen Screen in K-12 schools, with the government alleging that one third of teens are mentally ill or suicidal, and therefore require testing and treatment with powerful anti-depressants. So why is anybody surprised that kids are feeling so cozy with prescription drugs?
Indeed, we have no idea how many Americans die every year because of taking casual mixes of legal prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Their deaths might not get investigated fully, as Ledger's was, because there is no bright spotlight of celebrity on them.
So our country has yet another huge task ahead of it. Let's get real about how these substances can fatally mix, and start sending a message that makes people less comfortable with their casual use.
Taking a handful of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is like playing Russian roulette. You won't know if that bullet is going to come up for you and your personal chemistry. Because if it does, you'll already be drifting into that eternal sleep like Heath Ledger did.