What Heath Ledger’s death reminds us about the dangers of prescription drug abuse

In 2008, the world lost an Oscar-winning actor to the misuse of prescription drugs. Heath Ledger, probably best known for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), lost his life to a lethal combination of opioids, stimulants and nervous system depressants that were never meant to be consumed together.

Ledger’s family claims he was aware of the dangers of this prescription drug combination prior to his death, but it cannot be confirmed how aware he was of the severity of the side effects of abusing prescription drugs. Regardless, remembering such a tragedy even still today can serve as a warning for anyone considering using prescription drugs wrongfully. Like any other substance abuse, misusing prescription drugs can have irreversible mental and physical consequences.

What is prescription drug abuse?

Despite the circumstances, Ledger’s death in 2008 has raised awareness of the potentially lethal side effects of prescription misuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription drug misuse or abuse is defined as the act of taking certain drugs for purposes or in quantities different than what a medical professional has prescribed. Prescription drug abuse can also occur when drugs are taken by someone other than whom they were originally prescribed to.

Why do people abuse prescription drugs?

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs, second to marijuana and alcohol, the most commonly abused substances among Americans 14 and older. Teens often end up abusing prescription drugs because they believe they will help them stay alert, perform better in school or lose weight.

Prescription drugs are also often used to get high or to relieve pain, alter mood, relieve withdrawal symptoms from another drug or enhance the effects of another drug. Prescription drugs are abused when they are not used for their intended purposes. For example, stimulants are often used to help people who suffer from ADHD, but are sometimes used to help someone become hyper-alert or focused.

What are the prescription drugs most commonly abused or misused?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also offers a full list of the most commonly misused or abused prescription drugs. Here are a few you may know by their brand names (listed in parentheses).


  • Hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin)
  • Oxycodone (brand name OxyContin)
  • Propoxyphene (brand name Darvon)
  • Diphenoxylate (brand name Lomotil)


  • Amphetamines (brand name Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (brand name Ritalin or Concerta)

Central nervous system depressants

  • Diazepam (brand name Valium)
  • Alprazolam (brand name Xanax)

According to the toxicology report released after Ledger’s death, the combination of oxycodone, doxylamine, alprazolam, hydrocodone, diazepam and temazepam, many of which unfortunately appear on the list above.

What are the physical, mental and behavioral side effects of abusing prescription drugs?

  • The person feels numb; emotions, negative and positive, are masked
  • Compromised judgment, which can lead to high risk behaviors
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Decreased motivation and productivity
  • Headaches, anxiety and depression if going through withdrawal

Those who abuse prescription drugs often become obsessed with obtaining and using these drugs, and lose their social support systems as a result. Ledger’s family will never fully be able to understand why they lost their son to this kind of misuse of drugs, but with every tragedy, there is also often a rise in awareness. The actor who played the Joker may not have been able to conquer his substance abuse problems, but you and/or your loved ones can.

Do You or a Loved One Have a Hidden Addiction?

Over 20 million Americans have a serious addiction, but sometimes the warning signs are missed. If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, then take our free 3 minute assessment.
Take the Test