As of mid-2017, there were over 4 million RNs and LPNs working in the US. Among nurses, an estimated 10 to 15 percent are impaired by or recovering from substance abuse, including alcohol addiction.
In 2016, the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing cited 916 nurses for substance and alcohol abuse, which was a 21 percent increase over 2015. Other states say they have not noticed a significant uptick in the number of nurses with addictions or stealing drugs.
Whether or not the rate of substance abuse among nurses is increasing, any level of substance abuse is worth attention, both because of the devastating effects it can have on one’s personal life, and because of dangers to patients that can result from substance abuse among nurses.
Why Substance Abuse Among Nurses Is Troubling
Nurses are generally held in high regard as being caring, competent, hard-working individuals, whose daily tasks genuinely improve lives, if not save them. However, nurses are human just like everyone else, and addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. As tragic as substance abuse can be to individuals or families, when it is carried into the healthcare setting, dangers to the general public are an issue too.
Also troubling is that many nurses are highly reluctant to reveal to employers if they think they are developing a substance abuse problem. They are worried about losing their jobs, losing their nursing license, and not being able to afford substance abuse treatment.
Reasons for Substance Abuse Among Nurses
Addiction can happen to anyone, but there are aspects of being a nurse that can give addictions ample opportunity to take hold that many non-nurses do not face. For one thing, nursing is a stressful, fast-paced occupation, requiring both physical and mental stamina. Nursing is also a profession where on-the-job injuries are common, and prescription drugs are sometimes a first-line treatment for painful physical injuries. Finally, many nurses simply have access to medications that ordinary people do not have, and for those with substance abuse problems, the temptation to divert patient drugs for their own use can be overwhelming.
Employers Generally Want to Offer Second Chances
Any healthcare facility will tell you that when they have great nurses, they want to hold onto them. Replacing an experienced nurse who has served a facility well is expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, instead of automatically firing a nurse with a substance abuse problem and pulling their certifications, they are often willing to make accommodations so that nurses can get the treatment they need to recovery from substance abuse disorders and return to their nursing careers. Most state nursing boards understand that addiction is a disease and that nurses should have the opportunity to pursue recovery without worrying about losing their job.
It Is Okay to Ask for Help
It is not easy for anyone with a substance abuse disorder to ask for help, and that can be especially true for nurses. However, recognizing that there is a problem and asking for help are the two steps that can truly turn things around. Substance abuse treatment is effective, particularly when it is individualized and includes aftercare for patients who complete rehabilitation.
Nurses with substance abuse problems can and do recover, and even those who lose their nursing licenses can sometimes earn them back after completing recovery and demonstrating a commitment to long-term sobriety. If you are a nurse and concerned that you may have a substance abuse disorder, we encourage you to contact us at any time. We are not here to judge, but here to help. The sooner you get the help you need, the sooner you can return to being the everyday hero that you are!