In February 2020, the daughter of the controversial Canadian professor, clinical psychologist, and best-selling author Jordan Peterson announced that her father had been suffering horrific withdrawal effects for many months, after cold-turkeying from a benzodiazepine at the suggestion of a psychiatrist. Mikhaila Peterson reported that her father was close to death several times in North America, where he developed pneumonia, suffered from the medication-induced torture of akathisia, and became suicidal. He was then flown to Russia, where he apparently underwent a rapid detox.
Jordan Peterson’s inability to find effective care for benzodiazepine withdrawal in North America should give us all pause. What would compel a wealthy mental-health professional with access to the best medical care available in North America to fly to Russia for treatment? The prevailing media coverage alludes to addiction and bad judgment. The truth is much bleaker.
Jordan Peterson’s decisions were made in desperation because, as his daughter recounts, the medical help he was offered in North America failed him.
Jordan Peterson’s decisions were made in desperation because, as his daughter recounts, the medical help he was offered in North America failed him. While details about Jordan Peterson’s care in North America are scarce, the reality is that many doctors lack competence with benzodiazepine prescribing and deprescribing. The public and the press are largely unaware of the dangers these medications can pose.
As a result of this pattern of overprescribing, patients are harmed every day by taking their medications as directed, and are then left to find their own solutions. What makes Jordan Peterson’s story unique is that he is the first public figure to have his experience of benzodiazepine withdrawal reported as it happens. This reality makes the media response that much more vital.
As a result of this pattern of overprescribing, patients are harmed every day by taking their medications as directed, and are then left to find their own solutions.
Unfortunately, the prevailing message sent by the media in response to Jordan Peterson’s benzo crisis is that it is the patient’s fault, not that of the medical establishment. It is the patient’s character that is to blame, not systematic medical incompetence.
When it was first announced that Dr. Peterson had been injured by his medication, Mikhaila Peterson noted that it had been a psychiatrist who advised him to stop his medication abruptly (though it has been widely misreported that he did so on his own). Such advice runs counter to every safe protocol for withdrawal, but it is advice that, along with rapid tapering, is given all too often by prescribers. After reinstating the drug, Peterson reportedly sought inpatient detox in North American, which led, like many other prescribed harm patients before him, to poor outcomes. Once a person’s body has adapted to a medication as powerful as a benzodiazepine, that medication cannot simply be withdrawn without consequences. Even after the medication has been fully removed from the body, disabling effects can last for months or years.
Dependency Is Not The Same As Addiction
In her account, Mikhaila Peterson made it abundantly clear that what her father was suffering from, as is true of most others harmed by benzos, is a medically expected phenomenon called physical dependence, not addiction. It is not necessary to take her comments on faith, however—they can be corroborated in draft guidance available from the FDA:
Tolerance, physical dependence, and withdrawal are all expected biological phenomena that are the consequences of chronic treatment with certain drugs. These phenomena by themselves do not indicate a state of addiction.
Peterson’s daughter clarified this distinction verbally as well as in her written statement. Yet many media outlets—even the article that first reported Jordan Peterson’s condition, after they were given his daughter’s letter and video—reported that he was “addicted” to his medication. The press response has mirrored what many patients find when discussing their withdrawal symptoms with their doctors: disbelief and misdiagnosis. In response to these erroneous reports, Mikhaila Peterson reaffirmed the distinction between physical dependence and addiction, terms that are often conflated but have been defined separately by the DSM-5:
“Dependence” has been easily confused with the term “addiction” when, in fact, the tolerance and withdrawal that previously defined dependence are actually very normal responses to prescribed medications that affect the central nervous system and do not necessarily indicate the presence of an addiction.
Long-term use of benzodiazepines (for more than a few weeks) often leads to physical dependence. In fact, it does so with alarming frequency. But benzodiazepine use rarely leads to addiction, and the vast majority of patients withdrawing from benzodiazepines do not exhibit the signs associated with addiction: loss of control, craving, and cycling of relapse and remission.
What this means is that people frequently become physically dependent on a benzodiazepine, while taking it exactly as their doctor prescribed, without ever abusing the medication, or feeling the slightest urge to do so.
When addiction does take place, it requires care that is even more complicated than that for physical dependence, only underscoring the need for real, informed guidance.
What this means is that people frequently become physically dependent on a benzodiazepine, while taking it exactly as their doctor prescribed, without ever abusing the medication, or feeling the slightest urge to do so. In fact, people who become physically dependent on their prescribed medication generally have no idea that they are dependent until they try to stop.
To be absolutely clear, delineating the differences between physical dependence and addiction is not, and should not be, an effort to further stigmatize those struggling with addiction, a stigma that should have been cast aside long ago. Some of those who take benzodiazepines also deal with concomitant issues of substance abuse, the most lethal involving opiates, which when taken in combination with benzos account for the majority of benzodiazepine overdose deaths. Recreational use of benzos, especially among young people, is an important issue as well. But the overwhelming majority of those struggling with benzo withdrawal do so because they were prescribed the medications and took them as instructed.
Imagine discovering that a medication you thought would help you, a prescription that had been given to you by a doctor you trusted, had destroyed your life. The experience of withdrawing from benzos can change a life forever. Those whose lives have been fundamentally transformed deserve to have their stories told with accuracy.