Last Updated on March 25, 2020 by Dr. Alberto Solà

Nursing is a wonderful, respectable, and rewarding profession, and most who choose it love it – even despite the long hours, challenges, and intense demands of the job.  Nurses are a vital part of health care sector, and are often even more involved in direct patient care than most doctors.  There are a wide variety of settings where nurses can be found; certainly, they work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and nursing homes, but they can also be found doing home care visits in the community, working at schools and in camps, and providing care and support in inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment facilities, to name just a few of many other options available to them.  Nurses are highly educated through thorough training programs, and interested parties can choose the path of an RN (Registered Nurse), APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse), or LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) depending on the level of care they would like to provide and the education and salary they would like to pursue. There are over 4 million registered nurses in the United States today, which means that one in every one hundred people in our country today is a licensed nurse – and that is quite a statistic to consider, indeed.

Everyone has had an interaction with a nurse at some point in his or her life. Nurses greet us when we are born, take care of us when we are sick, and help us to transition into death when the time comes.  They are a vital part of our lives and are extremely visible throughout it.  Almost every member of our society views nurses fondly, and they are valued just as much as anyone else in the human services profession.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that nurses are nearly angelic to so many of us, they are not immune to drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.  Many people might think that because nurses are on the front lines seeing firsthand the devastation that these substances can cause that they likely are smart enough to keep them from becoming a detrimental part of their lives.  However, that is not the case.  Many nurses do use drugs and alcohol and many suffer from dependence and addiction as a result.  In fact, risk of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and alcoholism is even higher for nurses than it is for the general population.  Why does this happen, and how can nurses take care to ensure that they do not also go down this path?

Prevalence of Addiction in the Nursing Profession

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimatesthat “the global burder of disease related to drug and alcohol issues” is about 5.4% worldwide.  The National Survey on Drug Use and Health foundthat 21.5 million American adults (aged 12 and over) battled a substance abuse order in 2014 – and although that number has increased since then, on average, about 4-6% of the American population has a substance abuse problem in any given year, which is right on target with the world at large.  For nurses, however, that number is far higher.  Estimates suggest that as many as 10% of nurses in the United States are dependent on drugs or alcohol, and when we consider that ten percent means one in ten, it is quickly clear that this is a major issue.

Why Are Nurses at High Risk for Addiction?

Although nurses are very informed consumers when it comes to healthcare risks and the addiction potential of medications, there are several reasons that addiction is so prevalent in this profession.  Some studies show that nurses are actually less likely to abuse or become addicted to illegal drugs due to their vast knowledge about their negative effects, but that the source of abuse for most men and women in this field is actually prescription drugs.  Due to their role and relationship with doctors, nurses have greater access to addictive and dangerous pharmaceuticals than then general population does.

Nursing is an extremely stressful and demanding position.  Many positions require long hours with few or no breaks, and it is also extremely difficult from an emotional standpoint.  Many nurses indulge in drug and alcohol consumption to blow off steam or to mask and self-medicate feelings of loss or depression over patients’ issues that are beyond their control.  Also, nursing is exhausting.  Some nurses take painkillers or stimulants to help them get through their lengthy shifts and to stay focused and in tune with the demands of their patients and departments.

Nurses and Drug Abuse Effects us All

It’s obvious that nurses who are dependent on drugs or alcohol will not be able to provide the same level or standard of care to patients as nurses who are drug and alcohol free.  Individuals who use drugs and alcohol take days off from work more frequently, and this can create staffing shortages. Addicted nurses may be distracted by hangovers or cravings and may overlook patient needs. Further, they may accidentally forget to administer medications at the proper time, may give incorrect dosages, or in the worst cases, may steal medications from their patients when given the opportunity.

Addiction Treatment for Nurses

Unfortunately, many nurses do not seek treatment for their struggles with drugs and alcohol.  Many hospitals and other settings in which nurses work simply ignore the issue even when it becomes quite obvious.  Nurses are extremely loyal to one another and often to their place of employment as well, and this can keep them from reporting the substance abuse of another or even from encouraging the user to seek help.

Thankfully, many state boards offer alternatives to discipline for nurses who demonstrate signs of impairment.  More and more often, organizations that support nurses are showing their understanding of this epidemic within the field and are offering support to nurses who abuse drugs and alcohol by helping them to get into treatment programs rather than immediately terminating their employment.   Because people in the medical profession know that treatment can be effective, hospitals and other settings are helping their nurses in this way and are demonstrating that there are healthy and fair solutions to this problem in the workplace.  In Indiana, for example, nurses who successfully complete an addiction rehabilitation program can have criminal charges dropped from their records, and keep their nursing licenses, allowing them to move forward in their career once they are steady on their path to recovery.

In general, nurses are superheroes and superheroines, but they are not immune to the beck and call of drugs and alcohol, despite their direct understanding of the risks of these substances.  Although they are at higher risk of addiction than the rest of the population, awareness of this vulnerability can help them to protect themselves further against it.  If a nurse finds himself or herself in a dangerous situation due to drug or alcohol abuse, there is help available, and it is extremely important that he or she seek it out swiftly.  Not only does their lives depend on it, but the lives of their patients depends on it as well.

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