“And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind...Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did…”
Elton John’s song “Goodbye Norma Jeane” honors the death of a legend, Marilyn Monroe.
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe was one of the most popular and well-known cultural icons of the 1950’s. Best known for her “dumb blonde” roles, she starred in multiple movies such as Niagara, The Seven Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Monroe’s childhood was filled with foster homes and sexual abuse, leading her to marry at the young age of 16. During WWII, she started modeling, and in 1946, she became known as Marilyn Monroe after signing her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox.
But it wasn’t until 1952 that she started gaining media attention. Once she became a star, the media publicized every aspect of her life - everything from her numerous marriages to her mental health issues. The public knew she suffered from depression, substance abuse, and possible bipolar disorder. It was common knowledge that her favorite drink was champagne, and she also heavily imbibed sherry, vermouth, and vodka. Her multiple marriages and associations with President Kennedy were the leading headlines of her day. On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom from an overdose of sleeping pills (Nembutal) and liquor. The autopsy reported it as a suicide.
Since her demise, there have been countless conspiracy theories and speculations surrounding the circumstances of her death. Was it really on purpose, or was it a murder? Was she trying to call someone on the telephone before she passed? What about her connections with the Kennedys? But although Marilyn's life was constantly in the spotlight, the fact that she was overprescribed so many medications frequently seems to be overlooked by public speculators.
Before her death, Marilyn was prescribed numerous barbiturates, sedatives, and amphetamines for her various mental health issues. And there have been many records showing that she preferred to wash her medications down with a tumbler of champagne. In an alcohol-induced haze, these drugs become substantially more dangerous, easier to abuse, and far more lethal.
Given Marilyn’s mental health issues, it is both surprising and disturbing that her doctors would prescribe so many addictive drugs without better supervision. However, when you dig into statistics about the number of lethal drugs prescribed to patients and the number of related deaths even today, it puts the movie star's death, medications, and mental health issues into context and gives insight into how easily prescription drugs can be overprescribed and abused.
Over 52 million Americans have used prescription drugs recreationally, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse. 75% of the world’s prescription drugs are used by Americans, who account for less than 5% of the world’s population, and in 2012, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult every four hours for one month.
Currently, opioid drugs (painkillers) are the most common cause of prescription overdose. More than 6 out of 10 drug overdose deaths involve an opioid. Given the addictive nature of opioid painkillers, many people who are prescribed these euphoric drugs become addicted during a regular course of treatment. As they seek out a similar high, many patients turn to heroin because it’s cheaper and more easily accessible. Prescription opioid overdose is a large enough problem that the Obama administration passed additional legislation earlier this year to address the issue.
Though Marilyn's life and death have been glamorized as the tragic yet isolated story of a troubled star, it seems that her problems are actually closely related to our society's current struggles with overprescription of addictive medications, rising drug costs, and addiction.
Aptly named, Enclothed Cognition is the official Medelita blog for medical professionals interested in topics relevant to a discerning and inquisitive audience. Medelita was founded by a licensed clinician who felt strongly about the connection between focus, poise and appearance.