Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day
The Rolling Stones’ 1966 hit Mother’s Little Helper observes the quiet desperation of a suburban housewife who has become reliant on prescription pills to get through the drudgery and anxiety of her life. It’s a tale of the sort of discreet domestic drug dependency with which Valium is synonymous.
When Mother’s Little Helper hit the charts in 1966, Valium had only been on market for three years, and yet Mick Jagger’s lyrics already pinpoint a stereotype that has persisted ever since.
In the 1960s, Valium insinuated itself into popular society via GP prescription pads around the world, touted as a new ‘wonderdrug’. By 1968, Valium was America’s best-selling medication, a position it held until 1982, when widespread Valium use declined due to its addictive properties.
Here’s a short history of Valium.
A happy accident
Valium belongs to a class of psychoactive drugs known as benzodiazepines, which are typically used to treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms. They work by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, which helps to reduce neuron activity and promote relaxation. The first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide, was synthesised in 1955 by the Polish American chemist Leo Sternbach.
At the time Sternbach was working on the development of tranquilisers for Hoffmann-La Roche, a project that yielded disappointing results, at least initially. It was only thanks to a colleague’s discovery of a ‘nicely crystalline’ compound when tidying away the remains of Sternbach’s discontinued project that chlordiazepoxide was submitted for a battery of animal tests.
The results showed surprisingly strong sedative, anticonvulsant and muscle relaxant effects and the development of chlordiazepoxide for the psychoactive drug market was promptly fast-tracked. Within 5 years chlordiazepoxide had been released across the globe under the brand name Librium.
Sternbach’s synthesis of Chlordiazepoxide heralded the emergence of a new group of psychoactive drugs: benzodiazepines, or as they soon came to be known, ‘benzos’. The next benzo to hit the market was diazepam, which Hoffman-La Roche released in 1963 under the brand name Valium.
The emergence of benzodiazepines like Valium had an instant impact on the drug market. They were highly effective in treating anxiety and insomnia and seemed to be relatively low risk. As a result, they soon began to displace barbiturates, which are generally considered to be more toxic, as the preferred treatment for such conditions.
The billion-dollar wonderdrug
Valium was hailed as a wonderdrug and instantly tapped into a huge market: as a treatment for anxiety and anxious insomnia, it provided an ostensibly risk-free cure for the two most common causes of GP visits. Even better, it was effective and appeared to have no side effects.
Unlike barbiturates, which served a similar market, it was impossible to overdose on Valium. Indeed, barbiturates were widely viewed as dangerous due to the prevalence of high-profile deaths involving them. A year before Valium was launched Marilyn Monroe had died of acute barbiturate poisoning.
Marketing undoubtedly played a big part in Valium’s enormous success. The tone was quickly set and clearly targeted a very specific customer: the sort of lonely, anxious housewife portrayed in the lyrics of Mother’s Little Helper. Advertisements for Valium and other benzodiazepines in the ’60s and ’70s were, by today’s standards, shockingly brazen in their depiction of stereotypical women who might be saved from their disappointing lives by popping pills. Valium was touted as a drug that would sweep away your depression and anxiety, allowing you to be your ‘true self’.
The approach is typified by a 1970 ad that introduces Jan, a “single and psychoneurotic” 35-year-old, and presents a series of snapshots spanning 15 years of failed relationships, culminating in a picture of a matronly woman standing alone on a cruise ship. We’re told that Jan’s low self-esteem has prevented her from finding a man “to measure up to her father.” The message it obvious: maybe Valium can save her from her lonely fate.
Another ad from the same year features a middle-aged teacher who had been debilitated by “excessive psychic tension and associated depressive symptoms accompanying her menopause.” But fear not! Thanks to Valium, she’s now “trim and smartly dressed, the way she was when school began.” The ad’s title reads “Mrs. Raymond’s pupils do a double-take”.
Despite such shocking sexism, the aggressive advertising campaigns clearly worked. Valium was America’s best-selling medication between 1968 and 1982, with sales peaking in 1978, when 2 billion tablets were sold in the United States alone.
The inevitable comedown
It gradually emerged that Valium wasn’t quite as risk-free as everyone had hoped. In fact, it’s highly addictive and because its effects are non-specific, acting on multiple subunits of GABA, which govern different actions such as anxiety, restfulness, motor control and cognition, coming off Valium can have unpredictable side-effects, including panic attacks and seizures.
By the 1980s it was clear that the normalised use of Valium that had emerged in the 1960s was problematic and attitudes to the drug began to change. With the introduction of new regulations that controlled the previously carefree prescription of benzodiazepines and the emergence of more targeted anti-depressants like Prozac, Valium use became far less widespread.