Rebecca Fraser hadn’t been answering calls for 24 hours when, on a beautiful sunny day in Denmark, in south-east WA, her anxious mother Colleen went to her home to find out why. On June 25, 2012, Colleen found her daughter dead. A toxicology report revealed the 32-year-old had a lethal cocktail of sleeping pills, tranquillisers and anti-depressants in her system, in addition to the opioid methadone. Most of them had been prescribed.
“She had just fallen asleep and didn’t wake up,” her sister, hairdresser Meghan Griffiths, 44, tells WHO. “Rebecca was so sedated her airway had closed up and she wasn’t conscious enough to clear it for herself. Police told me it wasn’t the first death of its type in town.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 600 people die each year in Australia from accidental overdose of opioids. And the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre reports the rate of accidental deaths due to opioids has more than doubled among Australians aged 35 to 44 since 2007. More than two-thirds of those deaths were due to prescription medication.
In the US, where more than 50,000 people are dying from drug overdoses each year, US President Donald Trump declared the crisis a public health emergency on Oct. 26.
In Fraser’s case, the drugs found in her system were all within therapeutic doses, according to the coroner who recorded a verdict of accidental death. But together they proved fatal.
For too much of her short life, Fraser had felt inadequate. Suffering from severe asthma and eczema—“one year she was rushed to hospital 10 times,” says Griffiths—and missing so much school growing up led to ongoing self-esteem problems.
Quitting school at 15, she got a job in child care but her ill health soon forced her to resign. Unemployed, anxious and depressed, Fraser was 16 when she met the much-older boyfriend who turned her on to heroin.
Although she kicked the habit at age 20, she remained on the methadone program until she died—plus a pharmacopeia of other prescription medication.
For her last few years, Fraser endured near-constant pain and would often visit her GP for treatment. Big sister Griffiths, who lives in Ballina, NSW, believes the tipping point came when the anti-anxiety drug Xanax was prescribed late in 2011, despite warnings it can have serious side effects when combined with methadone. (The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency investigated the death, and found the GP was not at fault.)
At the time of her death Fraser was taking steps to improve her life and health. She had a counsellor and was trying to wean herself off medication.
“She called me in tears after seeing her counsellor for the first time,” Griffiths recalls. “Rebecca told me she was awesome, because she didn’t judge her.”
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For help with prescription medication issues, visit scriptwise.org.au.