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Counting sleep

Provincial campaign not ‘sheepish’ about dangers of sleeping pills

By Marcia Porter

When School of Pharmacy-based SaferMedsNL was getting ready to launch its campaign about the potential harms of sleeping pills, project co-ordinator Kelda Newport had no idea they’d have to compete with COVID-19.

The global pandemic put Newfoundland and Labrador into a lockdown, like in the rest of Canada and around the world, and forced the team to rethink how the year-long, awareness-building initiative would now unfold.

The hard truth is that Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rate of sleeping pill use in Canada – a number that continues to climb despite reductions in other parts of the country.

So, regardless of strategy or approach, the team knew it was essential to get its message out.

1 in 4 seniors

It’s alarming, says Ms. Newport, that almost one in four seniors across Newfoundland and Labrador take sleeping pills regularly.

Yet, on average, only one in 13 people taking sleeping pills sees any benefit – which amounts to about 35 minutes of extra sleep a night.

However, one in six sleeping pill users will experience some kind of harm.

So, with input and ideas from the SaferMedsNL steering committee, a group that unites patient advocates, community organizations, health-care professionals and academic researchers interested in helping people use medications more safely, the Counting Sheep campaign was born.

SaferMedsNL kicked off its campaign about the potential harms of sleeping pills with the help of some sheep.

“We focused on an encouraging message highlighting positive changes that people can make to improve sleep without relying on sleeping pills, rather than focusing on the harms of sleeping pills at a time when people were already anxious about the unknowns from COVID-19,” said Ms. Newport.

SaferMedsNL kicked off its campaign that included a quick video with a flock of bouncing sheep and a timely message that taps into the disruption COVID-19 has caused in people’s lives.

Along with changing its approach, SaferMedsNL also changed its promotional strategy.

Gone were the public events, conferences, booth campaigns and in-person events that had worked well in its earlier public conversation about the dangers of another commonly overused group of medications, proton pump inhibitors, commonly used to treat heartburn and reflux.

Instead, they worked to ensure highlighting safe alternatives to sleeping pills would fit well with a more virtual approach, including using online resources and brochures.

Next day effects

“Sleeping pills can cause memory and concentration problems, daytime fatigue and increase the risk of falls and fractures,” said Dr. Justin Turner, scientific director of SafterMedsNL and a faculty member at the University of Montréal.

“Most people don’t realize this, but driving the day after you take a sleeping pill puts you at the same risk of having a car crash as if you were to drive while drunk.”

People are often prescribed sleeping pills because they have difficulty falling or staying asleep, but pills are only meant to be a short-term solution, says Dr. Debbie Kelly, an associate profession at the School of Pharmacy and director of the school’s Medication Therapy Services Clinic, and co-lead on the SaferMedsNL project along with Dr. Turner.

From left are Dr. Debby Kelly and Kelda Newport.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Anyone who is struggling with sleep difficulties should really speak with their health-care provider,” said Dr. Kelly. “There are safer and more effective alternatives to improve sleep than sleeping pills, especially over the long-term.”

Many of the potential harms of sleeping pills can be reversed when discontinued, but the SaferMedsNL team says it’s important to avoid causing more harm by stopping medications abruptly and urges people to consult their health-care providers before doing so.

Find free resources, like the brochure How To Get a Good Night’s Sleep, without medication on the SaferMedsNL website.

SaferMedsNL is a partnership between Memorial’s School of Pharmacy, the Canadian Deprescribing Network based at the University of Montréal and the provincial department of Health and Community Services.

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