Nurses and Substance Abuse

Nursing is a tough job; it is emotionally taxing and physically draining. With all of the demands that nurses face on a daily basis, it’s not surprising that substance abuse is a growing concern in the field. In fact, according to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, there is an estimated 10-15% of all nurses that are addicted to some type of illegal or controlled substance. While this number may sound surprising, when we look at the reasons for substance abuse, it’s easy to see how nursing creates the seeming need for chemical dependency. Here, we’ll look at what substance abuse is, what some of the reasons are, and what to do about it.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is defined by the World Health Organization as the “harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.” The use of these substances as a coping mechanism can quickly lead to dependence and addiction.  These substances can create behavioral and cognitive changes in a person. Abuse means that a person has difficulty controlling their use of the substance and that they are experiencing negative and harmful consequences. When a person assigns higher priority to the drug than to obligations or previously enjoyed activities, this is a sign of abuse.

Reasons for Substance Abuse in Nursing

There are a lot of reasons why nurses experience such a high rate of substance abuse.

  • When there is a lack of alternative coping mechanisms, many people under high-stress situations turn to substances to alleviate some of the pressure. Alcohol and other drugs affect the mind in such a way that it eases tension – for a short while. Abuse occurs when people rely on drugs to ease stress instead of using proper stress-management techniques. This is especially true in high-stress work areas for nurses, like the ER, OR, or ICU.
  • Ease of Access. Nurses are surrounded by powerful medications every day at work. The ease of access creates an easy path for nurses to begin delving into substances that they normally wouldn’t if they were not given the opportunity.
  • Addictive Personality. Nurses are encouraged to work long hours and irregular shifts. Nurses who stick with the profession may have workaholic tendencies that coincide with other addictive personality traits. In other words, a person addicted to work is likely to become addicted to other things, including harmful substances.
  • An Easy Fix. Nurses are nurturers. They focus on helping others and are more than willing to spend extra time caring for patients in need. They often do this at the neglect of their own personal wellbeing. There’s no time to exercise, cook healthy meals, or see a therapist. Instead, substances are seen as a simple fix to ease the burdens of nursing. Hiding behind substances also ensures that nurses won’t be taking attention away from others who they deem more deserving of help.

What Should You Do?

If you suspect that a colleague is struggling with substance abuse, you should tell your manager. This may feel like you are tattling on your coworker; don’t forget that you are trying to help them. If you do nothing, they may not get the motivation they need to make a change. They may not even realize that there is a problem. If you approach them directly, they may meet your concern with denial that a problem exists in the first place. They may feel embarrassed that someone has noticed their struggles. By reporting to your manager or other superior, you are calling attention to the problem but not overstepping your duties.

What if You Are Struggling with Addiction?

If you think that you yourself may be struggling with substance abuse or addiction, you’re on the right track. Realizing that there is a problem is the only way forward. Next, you should approach someone you trust and ask for help. Addiction, as modern science is coming to reveal, is an illness that needs treatment, not judgment. Luckily, there are several organizations that specifically help nurses struggling with addiction. You should then do whatever it takes to get better. Go to therapy, do research, and protect your career. Once you have succeeded in beating your addiction, make it a point to help others that struggle, especially in the nursing community. Your voice can be a voice of change if you let it.