So many times, nurses treat patients whose lives have been touched by drug or alcohol abuse. But what happens when the nurses themselves are addicts? Sadly, this happens more often than you might think. The American Nurses Association (ANA) has estimated that 10% of nurses suffer from a drug dependency, which could amount to around 300,000 addicted nurses.
Why do nurses abuse drugs and alcohol? For the same reasons other people abuse drugs and alcohol. One of these reasons is stress. Nursing can be a highly stressful profession. People with stressful jobs sometimes turn to alcohol and drugs to try to cope. Of course, using drugs and alcohol to deal with such stress can lead to dangerous repercussions for nurses and their patients.
Why Nurses Shouldn’t Try to Treat Themselves
Nurses are accustomed to achieving things and getting things done. Many nurses assume they can treat their addictions just as they handle other things in their lives. They treat other people in the course of their jobs, so they assume they can treat themselves as well.
This could be a mistake – a grave mistake. If nurses are drinking heavily and stop drinking abruptly – if they go cold turkey – their bodies could revolt. The symptoms could include DTs (delirium tremens), which can cause confusion, hallucinations, heart problems, and even death.
Instead, nurses with addictions might want to consider seeking help at dual diagnosis treatment centers. (A dual diagnosis occurs when people have both a substance abuse problem and a condition such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or depression.) Such treatments might help their clients address their drug and alcohol abuse. Why shouldn’t nurses try to seek the same help themselves?
Addiction Also Hurts Patients
Unfortunately, health care workers’ addictions can hurt more than the health care workers themselves. It can also hurt their patients. If nurses abuse alcohol or drugs, the nurses might:
Take frequent absences from work. This could create staffing shortages where not enough nurses are available to care for patients at a doctor’s office or medical facility.
Not be physically present when patients need them. This could be because the nurses are occupied using drugs or alcohol and not in the office or on the floors of the hospital.
Be too distracted by hangovers or drug cravings to focus on their patients’ needs.
Forget to administer their patients’ medications, give them the wrong dosages, or give them the wrong medications entirely.
Steal medications from their patients.
This last consequence points to the widespread nature of opioid addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around 1.9 million Americans struggled with problems related to prescription opioids in 2013. Nurses seem especially vulnerable because they often have ready access to such drugs. But addiction does not discriminate. It harms all types of people from all walks of life, hurting their health, relationships, jobs, and other areas of their lives. It’s simply the nature of the beast.
Opioids’ qualities can also contribute to this abuse. As we’ve said, nursing is stressful. Opioids are drugs that can relax people and produce effects that temporarily relieve stress, so nurses might turn to these drugs in times of crisis. A popular television show, Nurse Jackie, depicted a fictitious nurse using drugs in this way.
In real life, there is help for such drug use. Professionals at rehab centers acknowledge that stress and addiction often go hand-in-hand. The professionals can work with their clients to find ways to relieve stress that don’t involve drugs.
Opioids also provide painkilling effects. Since nursing can be incredibly physically demanding, many nurses struggle with pain. Some nurses turn to opioids to handle this pain. Some become addicted to them.
Doctors are also prescribing large numbers of opioids, increasing the likelihood of addiction even more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2012, medical professionals issued 259 million prescriptions for painkillers. Nurses are just some of the millions of Americans who have access to such powerful drugs and have experienced their effects.
What Can Nurses Do?
Fortunately, addicted nurses can find help. On a state level, nurses can contact state boards of nursing and state nursing associations, such as the Massachusetts Nurses Association. They can direct nurses to programs and other treatments to help address their addictions. They could also help nurses if they are facing discipline for their actions.
Other help is also available. On a national level, websites such as AddictedNurse.com can help nurses with substance abuse and other issues. Other nursing and medical organizations offer resources for nurses who are dealing with substance abuse or recovering from it.
Nursing can be a tough profession. Substance abuse is also tough. But there are different kinds of resources and care, such as dual diagnosis treatment centers, that can help nurses seek the treatment they need to help themselves and their patients.
It seems like we see articles and hear news reports about opioid addiction on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many of these stories are no exaggerations.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2015 World Drug Report, it is estimated that 32.4 million people around the world struggle with opioid abuse. Additionally, results from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimate that 1.9 million Americans struggle with addictions to prescription opioids and 435,000 more have addictions to heroin, an illegal opioid.
Opioid abuse is clearly a problem in the United States and abroad. Different organizations, institutions, and agencies have taken different approaches to combat this problem, as have individual rehab centers across the country. Several of these approaches involve nurses.
If the opioid epidemic is a war, nurses are serving on the front lines. Emergency room nurses often treat people who have overdosed or are suffering from the ill effects of opioids, other drugs, and alcohol.
Nurses work at rehab centers to treat opioid abuse and other forms of abuse. They work at clinics and hospitals that provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT). They work in a wide variety of health care settings to help people recognize and treat their addictions. They also work to educate others about substance abuse and hope that such preventative measures can help people avoid addiction in the first place.
At Boston Medical Center, doctors do not administer programs that treat opioid abuse. Instead, nurses administer such programs. This tactic allows the clinic to see more patients (and ultimately treat more patients). Other health centers in Massachusetts and across the United States are utilizing nurses to administer such programs.
Other programs might provide specific training that relates to addiction. In 2016, the U.S. federal government awarded a grant to train student nurses at the College of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. This program trains nurses in SBIRT, which stands for screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment. The program aims to diagnose addictions early and help people find treatment for them.
National organizations are also tackling addiction. The American Nurses Association (ANA), the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and others have pledged to provide more training for people who prescribe opioids. The ANA has also pledged to encourage more health care providers to register with their states’ drug monitoring programs.
The ANA has also pledged to launch a campaign to raise awareness of opioid addiction. It has already established resources about opioid addiction and other forms of substance abuse. Additionally, ANA provides resources that can help nurses with their substance abuse problems if they are addicted themselves.
The government has also joined nurses in the fight against opioid abuse. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created and published guidelines regarding the prescription of opioids. Several nursing schools across the United States have pledged to teach these CDC guidelines, many of which address the use of opioids for long periods of time.
State boards of nursing have also created similar recommendations. The Michigan Board of Nursing, for example, has issued guidelines for nurses in regards to using controlled substances to treat pain. These guidelines recognize that nurses need to effectively treat pain. They also recognize the potential danger of certain medications.
There are also other government efforts relating to opioid abuse and nurses. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 is a federal law that permits nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe buprenorphine to patients who are addicted to opioids. It also allows doctors to see higher numbers of patients who need such drugs.
Speaking of government action, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. During this event, people bring unneeded prescription drugs to designated areas. DEA agents and other law enforcement agents take these drugs and educate the public about drug abuse. During one such day in April 2016, authorities took back almost 447 tons of prescription drugs.
Nurses educate the public about Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. They also play a vital role in other government efforts to end addiction by participating in community-based opioid overdose prevention programs (OOPPs). As their name indicates, OOPPs work to prevent substance abuse problems from ever occurring. Other nurses and nursing organizations are interested in government matters as advocates. They encourage other nurses to take political action or support candidates who take particular views on health care matters.
These efforts demonstrate that while the opioid epidemic is huge, different organizations, institutions, government bodies, rehab centers, and people are committed to helping fight it. Nurses have played—and will continue to play—a vital role in this battle.
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