Drugs

Drug Experts on Jordan Peterson Seeking Treatment in Russia for Benzo Dependence

Peterson’s daughter said doctors in the West didn't have "the guts" to medically detox her father. But experts say that’s a misleading narrative.
14 February 2020, 10:20am
Jordan Peterson Benzodiazepines
Jordan Peterson's daughter says he's seeking treatment in Russia for his dependence on benzodiazepines. Photo by Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Image

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.

While revealing that her famous father is physically dependent on benzodiazepines, Jordan Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila delivered a stinging rebuke of doctors in “the West.” But drug policy experts say some of her claims are dangerous and don’t appear to be evidence-based.

In a pair of articles in the National Post last week, Mikhaila Peterson said her dad, a controversial University of Toronto psychologist and author, is struggling with a severe dependence on benzodiazepines. Popular benzos are Xanax and Valium.

The articles, based solely on Mikhaila’s account, outline a number of extreme circumstances and medical reactions that supposedly led Peterson to seek detox treatment in Russia.

Mikhaila, an advocate of the dubious meat-only “Lion Diet,”said Peterson was prescribed a low dose of benzos in response to an autoimmune reaction to food. (The Post piece doesn’t specify what that means, or how it differs from a food allergy.)

Mikhaila said her dad’s dose increased when her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer last April and he developed a physical dependence on it. She said he developed a side-effect called “akathisia”—a restless movement disorder that left him suicidal. According to Mikhaila, her father “nearly died several times” while bouncing around North American hospitals and being given more medications.

Mikhaila said her dad sought treatment in Russia in January, where he was put in an induced coma for eight days and “had the most horrific withdrawal I’ve ever read or heard about.” (Peterson went dark on Twitter between January 22 and February 5; his most recent column for the Post appears to be from November.)

“He almost died from what the medical system did to him in the West,” Mikhaila said. “The doctors here aren’t influenced by the pharmaceutical companies, don’t believe in treating symptoms caused by medications, by adding in more medications and have the guts to medically detox someone from benzodiazepines.” Russia is known for having tough drug laws, scarce resources for recovery, and a cold turkey approach to treatment that includes the banning of methadone as a drug substitution.

VICE has reached out to Mikhaila Peterson for comment but has not yet heard back.

It certainly sounds like things are rough for Peterson, who developed a massive following when he refused to use students’ preferred gender pronouns, and later released 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a book that doles out tips like: “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” But experts who work in drug policy and public health say Mikhaila’s version of events raises questions and perpetuates ignorant narratives around addictions treatment in Canada.

Dr. Evan Wood, an addiction medicine physician and scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, said that while he can’t comment on the specifics of Peterson’s situation, Mikhaila’s statement that doctors in Canada don’t have “the guts” to detox someone off benzos is completely inaccurate.

“There’s a whole community of substance use professionals who routinely provide care for people who’ve become addicted to benzodiazepines and that would involve a tapering of the medication,” he said. The reason for that is slowly tapering off the drug lessens the likelihood of relapse, he said, adding going into a medically induced coma is “very extreme” and would typically only ever happen in Canada due to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. (There’s no indication that Peterson is seeking treatment for alcohol issues.)

Wood said tapering people off benzos can be “very challenging,” and can take up to a year.

“It’s a very dangerous medication,” he said, noting that benzos aren’t effective for anxiety because they like work in the short term but cause rebound anxiety when a person isn’t taking them.

Wood also said that getting through the detox, as Mikhaila said Peterson has done, doesn’t mean a person won’t relapse.

“It would be the same as withdrawing off of fentanyl or alcohol. The potential to go back to it would remain.”

Mikhaila also specified that her dad does not have “psychological addiction” to benzos but developed a dependency, a distinction that Peterson’s followers seem to be fixated on.

Wood said he doesn’t make a medical distinction between people who are physically dependent because of prescribed drugs and those who have an addiction, defined as “ongoing use in the face of harms.”

“I hate to see people categorized as though they’re bad people because they’re addicted,” he said. “The physical manifestation is the same but if you have access to the drug and you’re prescribed then you could call it dependence.”

Public health expert and University of Calgary professor Rebecca Haines-Saah said Mikhaila’s statements imply that there are no safe medical detox options for benzos available in Canada.

“I think that’s quite a bit of misinformation for people who may be vulnerable or feel like they might need treatment for that,” she said. “Given the influence of the Peterson family online and their large following I think some of this information that may not be evidence-based can be taken up and get legs and I think that’s a bit dangerous.”

Ontario, where Peterson lives, has a number of public and private drug detox options.

Haines-Saah also said the story also raises a lot of questions, including how Peterson allegedly nearly died several times due to the treatment he received in North America.

“There may be parts of the story that aren’t being shared publicly,” she said.

Petersons’s supporters have been quick to admonish people who aren’t particularly sympathetic to him.

“The critique of this is the family is asking for compassion but maybe there’s a sense that they haven't been that compassionate to other individuals who've experienced addiction,” Haines-Saah said.

(One of Peterson’s lectures on Youtube is titled “the problem of too much empathy.”)

But even the narrative around Peterson’s addiction and recovery send a message that in order to be a “real man” one must undertake a detox without the aid of other medications, said Haines-Saah. It’s in line with his views around masculinity. The same goes for the focus on Peterson’s physical dependence versus a psychological addiction.

“That’s advancing the power of the will the psychology versus the physiological dependence,” she said. “It really does support the idea of addiction as a moral failing.”

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