'Take Your Pills: Xanax' Dares You to Re-Imagine What Treating Anxiety Should Actually Look Like

For most people, mental healthcare can look a certain way. It starts with getting in with the right provider, getting a diagnosis and figuring out what the best treatment looks like for your specific needs — whether that includes different styles of therapy, medication or other building up an arsenal of coping skills to help you navigate the stressors and anxieties in your life. Your brain, after all, is a part of your body like any organ that needs proper care to continue to work with you rather than against you.

But what happens when one of those potential treatments — medications like Xanax — takes up so much space in the conversations around mental health? And how do we grapple with the ways these treatments are seen and presented as the simplest and least disruptive means of treating mental health conditions amid a growing mental health crisis?

Those are just some of the questions that Maria Shriver and her daughter Christina Schwarzenegger explore in their new Netflix documentary “Take Your Pills: Xanax” — and a huge part of the larger conversation they had with Dr. Julie Holland (author of Moody Bitches, Medicating Women’s Feelings and more) and Oprah Daily’s Pilar Guzman in their panel at SXSW’s SHE Media co-lab event, the Future of Health earlier this month. Building on the work of Schwarzenegger’s previous documentary of the same name that explored the use of Adderall in competitive academic environments and the pervasive cultural idea that medication and pills are a instant one-size-fits-all solution, the follow-up looks closer at yet another worrying part of the puzzle that is U.S. mental healthcare: the increase in prescriptions of Xanax and how it can undercut true mental health solutions.

“So the first [documentary] was, obviously focused on Adderall. And that one sprouted from a personal experience. So this kind of felt like a natural evolution, when we were focusing on stimulants to then also focus on anti anxiety medication,” Schwarzenegger said. “And I think a few of my goals for the film were one, for people not to feel alone — that was a huge thing for me when I was struggling coming off of Adderall — and, really, for people to kind of understand that they’re not the only person experiencing it. And… I really want people to gain more knowledge about this subject to feel like they have some educational tools so that they can understand the short-term and also many of the long-term effects of being on these medications.” She also notes that she really wanted to spread the word on the alternative methods that exist beyond simply throwing a pill at a problem as complex as mental health and anxiety.

All About Benzos

A good place to start here is understanding what these pills are, how they work and how widespread these prescriptions have become: Benzodiazepines — a class of drug that includes Xanax, Valium and Ativan. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, they function by getting your brain to release the neurotransmitters that will “slow down” your nervous system called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

They are often prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and seizures but there’s also been a more recent uptick in prescriptions for back pain or other kinds of chronic pain, according to a 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open. That study notes in particular that there was a steep increase in prescriptions of this class of medication between 2005 and 2015, with majority of those prescriptions coming from primary doctors and the vast majority of the prescriptions went to women, middle-aged adults and individuals with public insurance like Medicaid or Medicare.

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