Nurses and Substance Abuse

By Sue Heacock on Sun, Jan 06, 2013

substance abuse nurse Nursing is a highly esteemed profession but still has its negative aspects. Because of the demanding and stressful nature of the job, many nurses have fallen in the traps of substance abuse. On shows like 'Nurse Jackie', this unfortunate truth is made known to the public but the problem is more prevalent than most people realize.

"It has been estimated that 10 to 15 percent of all nurses in the United States are addicted to some type of illegal or controlled substance," explained Art Zwerling, MS, MSN, CRNA, FAAN, a nurse anesthetist educator and member of the peer assistance program at the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.

While the risk of addiction is not limited to any one specialty, the specialties with the highest prevalence of substance abuse uses are ICU, ER, OR, and anesthesia.

There are several reasons for this in our profession:

  • Job stress. Long hours/stress related to caring for the sick/dying.
     
  • Job work area. You will notice above that nurses working in ICU, ER, OR, or anesthesia have the highest prevalence of substance abuse. These are considered very high stress work settings.
     
  • Easy access to medications.
     
  • Workaholic personality leads to other addictions.
     
  • In general, nurses take care of others first and themselves last. This leads to addiction to "hide" personal needs and tend to the needs of the patients.

What can I do as a nurse if I suspect a co-worker is addicted to drugs or alcohol?

  • The worse you can do is nothing.
     
  • Approaching the nurse directly will likely meet with resistance and denial.
     
  • Report your suspicions to management. This will lead to the nurse getting help. Most employers offer drug/alcohol treatment programs. An employer would rather treat a nurse and get her back to work than to have to invest/train in a new nurse.
     
  • Do not feel guilty about reporting your suspicions. If you are wrong, no harm done. But if your suspicions are correct, you have helped a fellow nurse get his/her life back on track, have contributed to patient safety, and have promoted the positives of the nursing profession.
     
  • Speaking of patient safety: "Statistics indicate that employed people who abuse substances are unreliable on the jobs," according to Recoveringnurses.org. Without going into more detail, this statement says it all. You owe it to your patients to give them reliable care. If you are working with an addicted nurse, you are not being fair to your patients.
     
  • Need another example? "Compared to nonusers, alcohol and illicit drug users are more likely to have been involved in a workplace accident in the past year," according to Recoveringnurses.org. Again, think about the safety of the potentially addicted nurse, your patients, co-workers and, yes, yourself.

What if I am a nurse and think I am addicted to drugs or alcohol?

  • Ask for help. Addiction is an illness. You need help in recovery. There are substance abuse nurse organizations that can help, but not if you don't ask. 
     
  • Don't wait until you resort to stealing, cheating, or lying to feed your addiction. Get help early. Your supervisors and peers will respect you for your efforts.
     
  • Protect your nursing license. By getting help and staying clean, you protect what you have worked so hard to earn, in a profession you are proud to be in.
     
  • Become an advocate. Help other nurses in your community with addiction issues. As stated above, over 10 percent of nurses are addicted to drugs or alcohol.


31 COMMENTS

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lyn sanchez 12 months ago
Is this site still active? I see no recent posts

Anonymous 2 years ago
I have been a nurse for almost 10 years and have always been one of those nurse the couldn't believe nurses could be so stupid to steal drugs and had very little patience for the addicts that were admitted to my floor. Well, now the good lord is teaching me a well needed lesson. I have a chronic illness that causes great pain and was prescribed percocets by my family doctor. I took them as prescribed for over a year and then started to double up my dose without telling my doctor. My scritps would run out before they were do. One night at work after administering some dilaudid to my patient, I looked at the wastage and I do not know what possessed me, but I put it in my pocket. Later on when I got home, I took it for myself. I had no pain at all for the first time in years and fell asleep easily and slept through the night which I hadn't done in years. The next morning when I was home with the kids.I tool what was left. I was comfortable, happy and played with my kids all morning which I hadnt done in a long time. That was the start of my problem. I should have know the minute I decided to steal from the hospital that things were out of control. Over the next six months I stole ever single wastage I had and even signed out drugs and gave them to the patient whether they asked for it or not so I could take the wastage. I knew I had a problem. I n ever thought I would be the one with the problem. I was finally caught and am glad. Right now my union is on my side helping me get the treatment I need, but I have lost the respect of my peers that I have worked with for many years, lost the respect of friends and family and am deathly scared of having to live with my chronic pain again in order to live a drug free life. I cry everyday at how I have ruined my life. I just hope I can succeed in winning back the respect that I worked so hard for over the years.

Amy Fox 1 month ago
Everything happens for a reason. ..use your experience and times of weakness to influence, educate, and bring this issue to the

Anonymous 2 years ago
Nurses are no better than anyone else. If they are not up to the job and put patients at risk then they deserve to be treated just like anyone else who gets caught. Stop thinking you are all so special, many of your are obviously second rate. If a bus driver gets canned for being high at work, so should you. excuses excuses excuses. You are not excused, you are just like the rest of the world and should pay the same price as anyone else, damn you are all so special and should not be criticised? no matter how you behave? Get REal and take responsibility. you don't like the price? Tough you are nobody special.

Nancy Walter 5 months ago
NUrses deserve the same treatment(rehab )as does everyone else.After being a nurse for 30+ years I never met one that thought they were special or deserved special treatmentYES this is a problem that everyone deserves to be treated equally JUst as I hope you received the appropriate help with your anger issues

Anonymous 2 years ago


I feel for any of my nursing colleagues who are dealing with addiction issues.Losing the license is hard to endure. Losing your life or harming someone else is far worse.I have no sympathy for a former nurse manager of mine who diverted drugs for her own use & used her position to try to nail the drug thefts(many over a long period of time)onto other staff members. She should have been made to go to treatment. This did not happen.She was even promoted, while other staffers who were privy to her getting caught were let go.This was in a small facility ,& I suppose that the owners felt that they could act as they wished.i would like to think that She got sober.I would also hope that she might make amends to the people who lost their jobs..but it hasn't happened



Anonymous 2 years ago


I'm a nurse with an addiction problem. I am the last person anyone ever suspected. I worked in the er for 6 years, and not until the last year I was there did j develop a narcotic addiction. I agree i needed help, and I am ultimately grateful i was caught. But if you are suffering from addiction, dont believe all the posts that your employer will offer you help. Maybe some will but not all. My employer had me arrested and in writing stated they would not stop til i was no longer practicing as a nurse. I have entered my states nurse assistance program, and it is hell. They make it damn near impossible to get a job, and will never let you out til you work for so many years. So my advice if you have a problem, take some time off and deal with it. Dont wait til you are caught, and dont tell coworkers. No matter how close you are they will never treat you the same again. You are not protected by anything. You can lose your job, you license, and be prosecuted. It will ruin your life. Now im sober, but it still haunts every aspect of my life. It's humiliating, shameful, and no matter what anyone says til you have been through it you dont understand. So before you go run and tell on yourself, protect yourself. Try a private treatment program, change jobs, and if you get caught...demand a witness because you will be the bad guy and they absolutely can come after you leagally and professionally. Once they lable you an addict, they will believe nothing you say, and it is likely if others are involved, you will get all the blame. You may nkt agree with what i say, but as a young nurse who has almost had everything stripped away, I wjsh someone would have told me this before.



Anonymous 12 months ago
Agree. When nurses reach out for help truly looking for support & treatment, they r punished & treated like scum by many coworkers, as u will see by some of the judgmental posts

Anonymous 2 years ago


This comment is for Angie Z, William H, and Tommy M. First of all..Angie thank you for your comment about throwing stones. No one is above doing drugs whether alcohol or narcotics. And for those who are perfect...you will never know the intense humiliation, embarrassment,degradation, and disgrace of having your license plastered all over the state board of nursing magazine. Not to mention the how they make you feel when you have to sit in front of them and they make you feel like crap. They make you feel like you have killed someone. I am not making any excuse for nurses who use drugs, but obviously they need a little more help than the perfect nurses. So sorry that we can not all be like you insensitive nurses. Heaven forbid if you ever have to experience this. William...what kind of nurse are you. I really would not want to be a patient of yours or let one of my relatives be under your care. You sound real cold. DRUGGIE!!!What a nice choice of words. You would probably be the type of person who see another person about to jump off a bridge and encourage him/her to jump. PLEASE DON'T JUDGE!!! Do you know how hard it is for a nurse to get hired after she/he has gone through this type of ordeal. Obviously you don't..so don't judge. As a nurturer we are suppose to be compassionate, caring, and most of all understanding not just of patients, but for your fellow co-workers as well. Nursing has changed into a money making business and many people get into nursing now for the payoff. It's not even about caring anymore. Nurses have separated themselves into categories and different classes, when we are all chosen to do the same thing and that's to be there for the next person in need of help. I have read all the comments in this forum and some of it just made me really really sad to know that the PERFECT nurses snub their noses down at the nurses who have fallen off. Please forgive us for being HUMAN!!!!



Anonymous 2 years ago


I hear what you say when you state that employers want to help nurses who have a problem, but this is not always the case. There are some people who will turn you in for the slightest things and want to see a nurse loose her license.



Anonymous 3 years ago
I have been an ER nurse for 6 years, and an alcoholic my whole life. My family and husband were so proud when I decided to become a nurse and actually graduated later in life. Six years later I find a letter in the mail from the BON. I will need to enter the diversion program. I am elated, scared, angry, relieved, all of the above. Don't know what will happen. I started taking the "waste" with narcs after a few years on the job then started to downright fudge charts and actually just steal narcs. Originally stole them for hubby who had quit drinking..I felt bad for STILL drinking and started stealing the drugs for him so he could "feel good" too...then I started taking the drugs...sick I know...looking forward to help actually...don't know if I want to be a nurse anyway...so confused...please pray for me. I was a very good nurse by the way.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I too am in recovery. I think my past gives me strength to do the right thing. I do not hide who I am. I can't. I was arrested from my job and escorted out of the hospital in handcuffs. I have returned to work and am currently an advocate. I am not proud of my history, but I am living proof that things can change and you don't have to be a statistic. I am now a nurse manager at the same hospital I was escorted from. It was in 2004 and I went to a two year fairly extensive rehab process. It is not for the weak but the results are amazing. Freedom from my own personal hell (Priceless) Thank God for the day I was caught!

Anonymous 3 years ago
i realize the importance of gettting help for an addicted peer, but who makes the call? at my place of employment, one of the nurses called our program director and relayed her suspicions about a peer, who was drug-tested and found to be clean! the accused nurse was humiliated; now most of us feel like we do not want to work with the accuser and the atmosphere at work is almost like that of a witch-hunt. i don't agree that "there was no harm done." illegal drug use is a very serious accusation among professionals and i feel the accusing nurse should now be made to apoligize to her peer.

Anonymous 3 years ago
To the nurse who works in corrections. I know how you feel. I'm a nurse in a psych unit. We see many addicts. I hate the way my co owrkers view them. I have a son with a heroin addiction, which began with Oxycontin. His addiction is what drove me to work in psych.

Anonymous 3 years ago
Been in SARP :) could not have stopped w/o intervention. It sux to be caught, but being free from the drugs is worth it.

Anonymous 3 years ago
SARP,,;),,nuff said

Anonymous 3 years ago
I have been an RN for 21 yrs and and never did I wish to be able to have adequate access to narcotics, a nightmare. I went through rehab twice and when I felt myself slipping away, I temporarily retired until I get it all back together again...my heart goes out to us addicts.(not something we had in mind) We can do it...we can overcome...but I will not return to nursing until I feel very confindent in doint so like I did when I started in 1990.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I'm in nursing school now and I think I'm already an addict. It happened without me realizing it. I will soon graduate and keep telling myself I can hold on until I graduate. But reading all these posts, I realize that my judgement may be impaired. However, I do think that it makes you a more compassionate nurse. Where I used to work, I watched a lot of nurses and doctors stereotype people the minute they came in the door. The economy has forced many people to use the ER like they would have doctor offices before. I'm just terrified that any future employers will find out I went through a recovery program and won't hire me. I'm researching outpatient clinics for help now. I realize now that I will need lifetime counseling to overcome the things in my life that I've suffered and continue to deal with.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I am a Nurse and a alcoholic. I've been rehabilitated, medicated and have done AA. i currently work for the department of corrections and it kills me seeing how other nurses view addicts and alcoholic. Not knowing that the nurse next to them is and addict as well. i'm not proud of what i am but as a nurse it gives me the drive to do my job twice as hard. i have experianced pain and suffering which helps me react to patients pain better. people tend to forget the human element, nurses are human with the same flaws and shortcomings that their patients have. but in all honesty the nurse who is an addict should be viewed like a patient... some can be saved and some can't.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I was a hospice nurse accused by a family member of stealing lorazepam. Fortunately, the accuser had used up all her cred and my managers had absolute faith in me. I got out of all face-to-face contact and hope never to be in the presence of a client again. People lie, mud makes good paint. Don't judge, show some compassion

Anonymous 3 years ago
I am an RN who is also a recovering addict/alcoholic. I am very grateful that someone confronted me so I could get the help I desperately needed but was too shamed to admit. I have been sober for 7 years now and have spent the last 4 of them working in addiction medicine. I can tell you that the statistics listed here are right on, if not a little low for whats in the field. It's staggering and it does not discriminate. It is not a morality issue, its an illness. Check it out with AMA.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I can say that, high stressors and inadequate coping skills can truly make it easy for a nurse to become an addict. I had a drug problem in the past and I am not afraid to say it and of course I know that I will always be an addict. God blessed me with the ability and strength to become clean and to keep my nursing license without ruining my life or anyone elses' in the process. I now have the tools I lacked in the past and truly being through all I went through has made me become a more understanding and tolerant nurse and person. Everyone has made mistakes and we just need to keep moving forward and not look back. For anyone in this situation at this time. There is hope and you can overcome. God Bless.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I am a nurse with 31 years in recovery. I was stealing narcotics from the hospital and using heroin. I went to a nurse support group and many AA and NA meetings. I also used Naltrexone for a year. During my sober career I was the manager of the drug free work place. I intervened on many hospital employees and nurses. All but one of them returned to their job after a 28 day treatment program. The one nurse is continuing to use alcohol. I have found that if you suspect drug abuse your are correct. Because thinking someone is a drug or alcohol addict is not the first thing that comes to your mind. So if you suspect do intervene even though most of the time they will deny it. Recovery is possible. In California they found that nurses who were loosing their licenses jumped off the golden gate bridge so the initiated a diversion program for nurses which has been very successful. We need compassion and treatment for our nurses who are suffering with addiction not jail time.

Anonymous 3 years ago
I have been an R.N. all my life, but after my retirement, I became an alcoholic, due to some severe stressors in my life.

I am now in recovery for 5 yrs. I know of many nurses in my program, who have had this problem, and they sought help. I never had a pill/drug addiction, but it's all the same at the end of the day. I can really identify, as this can happen to anyone, no matter WHO they are!

Anonymous 3 years ago
People do really ugly things in revenge (such as the boyfriend???) Did anyone have hard core proof? I'm just saying...accusing or so called "reporting" in this very cut throat profession can often start a nightmare for persons actually clean but maybe going through some personal issues etc. BE very careful throwing your stones...they may come back to break your window.

Anonymous 3 years ago
There should not be "illegal drugs" or "controlled substances." Adults should have ez access to whatever they want. Likewise, employers should be able to place whatever restrictions or drug testing they desire on employees. I don't care what adults do. That is their business. You can't legislate morality or outlaw stupidity. On the other hand, I would never employ a druggie myself.

Anonymous 3 years ago
There are a few warning signs that may indicate a problem: mood swings, angry outbursts, tardiness, and changes in personal appearance.
It is very difficult to be attuned to your co-workers when decreased staffing and increasing workloads remain issues.

Anonymous 3 years ago
My first job out of college was working as a external PRN staffing recruiter for a hosptial in Southeast Texas. I hired a nurse who admitted to having a meth problem in the past, but had gone through rehab and was supposedly clean. She told me a story about being on a 7 day meth binge and working in the ER. I'll spare you the details, but it was CRAZY. Several months later this nurse broke up with her boyfriend and for revenge he called all of the hospitals in town to report that she had stolen morphine from their pharmacies for both of them to use. (She was very sneaky, too. If he hadn't called no one would have ever known who stole it.) Unfortunately, drug use is out there. And not reporting it really is the worst thing you can do.

Tommy Mitchell
thomas@aprx.net
888.812.3452 x714
www.advancedpracticerecruiters.com