Nurses and Substance Abuse: How Access can Lead to Addiction - nurse holding a pillSubstance abuse is an issue that doesn’t discriminate.

It has the potential to affect anyone, regardless of their age, race, gender or income level. Medical professionals are not immune from developing a dependence on or a full-blown addiction to drugs or alcohol.

When a nurse develops a substance abuse issue, it has serious consequences. The person with the drug or alcohol problem is taking on the risks of harm to themselves. There may also be increased risks to the patients under their care when the nurse is not performing at their best due to substance issues.

Nurses No More Likely to Abuse Drugs

The number of nurses living with substance abuse is about the same as the general population, in the 8-10 percent range. They are no more likely to have issues with chemicals than people working in other professions. However, if a nurse does develop a substance abuse problem, they are more likely to have access to controlled substances than the general population.

Workplace Factors that Increase the Risk of Addiction for Nurses

No one would argue that the work nurses perform is easy. There is no doubt that it can be rewarding; however, it can also be physically and emotionally draining. Several workplace factors increase the risk of addiction for nurses, including the following:

  • Staff shortages
  • Long hours
  • Increased patient assignment ratios
  • Demands from administration
  • Shift rotations

Along with the reasons listed above, nursing staff are the ones who are on the front lines of patient care. They are the ones who are most likely to experience verbal or physical abuse from patients. Workplace bullying is also an issue for some nurses, which only adds to the stress of an already-stressful job.

How the Road to Substance Abuse and Addiction Starts for Nurses

There are a number of ways that someone working as a nurse can start down the slippery slope toward addiction. They are already under a lot of stress because of their job. If that stress is compounded by stress in their personal life due to family or relationship issues, it could be enough for someone to start looking for a way to take the edge off.

Some nurses handle work and personal stress relatively well until they experience a back, shoulder or knee injury that takes some time to resolve. They visit their doctor and are prescribed pain medication to treat the injury. If they are still in pain when the medication runs out and they can’t get more from their doctor, some nurses will resort to accessing pain and anxiety medications available to them through work.

Medications can be accessed as follows:

  • Acquiring floor medications for personal use
  • Retrieving medications that should have been disposed of
  • Diverting medications from patients

Diverting medications means that patients do not receive the full dose that their doctor has ordered for them. A certain amount of the medication has been diverted to the nurse who has a substance abuse or addiction issue instead.

Nurses who attempt to divert medications have to conceal their activities from coworkers and supervisors. Signs that a nurse may be diverting drugs from patients include sudden bouts of irritability and an increased number of mistakes while on shift.

Help for Nurses with Substance Abuse Issues

In the years before the 1980s, nurses either lost their jobs or faced discipline by the Board of Nursing when evidence of a substance abuse issue was discovered. Today, a number of Boards of Nursing have adopted a different approach to disciplining nurses for substance abuse.

Today, the affected nurse is often referred to a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program where they can start treatment quickly. They are removed from an environment where they are providing patient care.

Substance abuse is treatable, and nurses can get the individualized care they need. With appropriate support, a nurse can enter recovery and look forward to transitioning back to work.

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to reach out for help.
We can start you on the road to recovery.

Substance Use Disorder in Nursing. National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Retrieved July, 2017.
Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Retrieved July, 2017.