Addiction Treatment for Nurses

A high stress work environment and access to prescription medications can lead to addiction for nurses. How is addiction treatment specific for these medical professionals? More here.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Juan Goecke, M.D.
Reviewed by: Dr. Juan Goecke, M.D.

WHAT THIS ARTICLE COVERS: Nurses develop substance use disorders at generally the same rate as others. However, addiction is treated differently for nurses. What practices are most effective? We explore here.  Then, we invite your questions related to nursing and treatment at the end.


The Need

Although most nurses understand the dangers of addiction, drug abuse and addiction can quickly develop in this population. Why? Two of the biggest reasons for this seem to be a high-stress work environment and ease of access. Addicted nurses may use alcohol or drugs to cope with the anxiety of their often difficult and fast-paced career. And in a medical setting, prescription drugs are often very easy to come by.

Unfortunately, addicted nurses not only put themselves in danger, but also put their patients and co-workers in danger. When it comes to nurses and addiction, treatment is absolutely essential. However, due to the nature of their work, many physicians and medical professionals , as well as nurses may not be willing to seek addiction treatment. They may recognize a substance abuse problem in themselves or may be worried about losing their jobs if anyone finds out they have an addiction.

In order to be effective, addiction treatment programs for nurses should include some of the following important aspects.

  • Addiction education
  • Aftercare
  • Intensive treatment
  • Peer-to-peer support
  • Privacy
  • Workplace re-entry plan

Around 1 in 10 nurses is likely to struggle with addiction.

The Numbers

So, how many nurses are facing a problem with drug use or problem drinking?

It seems to depend on where you work. A recent study published in American Journal of Public Health found that emergency nurses were 3.5 times as likely to use marijuana or cocaine when compared with nurses in women’s health, pediatrics, and general practice, while oncology and administration nurses were twice likely to engage in binge drinking, and nurses in psychiatry practice were most likely to smoke.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) reported that 6 to 8% of nurses use substances to an extent that is adequate to impair professional work. Moreover, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) reported research that synthesized several sources estimated that between 14% and 20% of nurses practicing in the U.S. suffer from addiction.According to these statistics reported in the book, Issues and Trends in Nursing , nurses generally misuse substances at the same rate as the rest of the population, 10 – 15%.

This means that 1 in 10 nurses is likely to be struggling with substance use disorder.

To conclude, nurses have a lot on their shoulders. Easy access to medications, high stress workplaces, and little rest can create the perfect storm for a problem. Still, don’t wait to seek help. Addiction responds with treatment!

Specialized Treatment

Individualized and evidence-based addiction treatment practices are the best solution for treating anyone diagnosed with substance abuse disorders. According to NIDA, a variety of addiction treatment services should be tailored to meet your needs. Furthermore, reputable program should address specific:

  • Cognitive issues
  • Emotional issues
  • Neurochemical issues.
  • Physical issues
  • Social issues

Because nurses can be somewhat sensitive, program should also be based on prevention and trigger elimination. How do professional certification organizations weigh in? Position statements exist from the:

These organizations have actively promoted nonpunitive substance abuse policies, and many states have adopted alternative-to-discipline (ATD) programs. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, medical practices that have moved from disciplinary and suspension punishments to ATD programs have good retention rates. Moreover, nurses who complete ATD addiction rehab programs have fewer criminal convictions and are able to retain their nursing licenses and maintain successful careers in nursing.

What To Expect?

While nurse addiction treatment does differ slightly from addiction treatment for non-medical professionals, it typically follows the same basic steps.

1. Evaluation and assessment

Addicted nurses should be evaluated before entering any addiction treatment program. During this evaluation, an addiction specialist will be able to assess their needs, diagnose mental health disorders, and create an addiction treatment plan.

2. Detox or withdrawal

Detox is highly recommended for addicted nurses before they enter treatment. While in a detox program, nurses can safely go through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol. There is also a much smaller risk of relapse while in a detox facility, since access to drugs or alcohol is non-existent.

3. Psychological addiction treatment therapies

Treatment options for nurses can include residential inpatient treatment, partial inpatient treatment, and intensive outpatient treatment. While in an addiction treatment program, nurses will usually undergo individual behavior therapy, group therapy, and addiction education classes. In some cases, pharmacotherapy may also be used.

4. Aftercare

Aftercare is an extremely important part of nurse addiction treatment programs. Nurses recovering from addiction will typically need to continue going to outpatient therapy programs as well as group therapy sessions. Most employers will also require nurses recovering from addiction to sign a last-chance contract, which stipulates that a nurse will be terminated in certain situations. For example, they may be terminated if medications are missing during their shift or they fail a drug test.

Is It For Me?

If you are asking yourself whether you have an addiction problem, first get honest with yourself. Then, check out this Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) that lists 11 criteria to diagnose addictive behavior:

1. Take the drug in larger amounts or longer than intended.
2. Want to cut down or stop using drug but fail to succeed.
3. Spend a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the use.
4. Experience cravings and an uncontrollable need to use the drug.
5. Fail to perform normally at work, home, or at school due to drug use.
6. Continue to use, even when it causes problems in relationships with family, friends, and partners.
7. Give up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of use.
8. Use the drug again and again, despite being aware of harmful risks and side effects.
9. Continue to use despite the risk of developing health problems or worsen physical or physiological condition.
10. Need more drug to get the desired effect (tolerance).
11. Experience withdrawal symptoms which can be relieved by taking higher dose (dependence).

Moreover, the severity of any addiction is diagnosed based on the number of criteria you meet.

2-3 Criteria = mild addiction disorder.
4-5 Criteria= moderate addiction disorder.
>6 Criteria = severe addiction disorder.

Still not sure? Check out this NIDA online drug screening tool, and seek help from a certified addiction specialist.

Keep in mind that you can always call SAMHSA hotline 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It is a confidential, free, 24/7 service for individuals and family members dealing with substance use problems.

Treatment Barriers

Not surprisingly, nurses face a number of barriers before, during, and after treatment. This includes general barriers, such as family and career responsibilities, as well as more profession-specific barriers.

Some common nurse addiction treatment barriers include:

  • Ease of access to drug(s) of choice.
  • Fear of judgment by peers and coworkers.
  • Fear of ruining a career.
  • Need for staying alert on the job or relaxing afterwards.

Where To Find Help

Since nurses are health care providers, they often believe that they are able to handle their substance use disorders by themselves. But, although you may be hesitant about asking for help, this need not be the case. Many employers will be glad to help, as someone using drugs or drinking on the job is a danger and a liability.

You can speak with your human resources office, employer health services, or even a fellow co-worker that you trust. You can also speak with your own primary physician or an addiction specialist. Anonymous addiction hotlines are another great resource when looking for help, as is your state’s Board of Nursing.

Your Questions

Struggling with an addiction is a stressful and difficult time, especially if you believe your career is in jeopardy. If you or a loved one is a nurse and in need of addiction treatment, feel free to leave any questions or concerns about your situation in the comments section below.

We look forward to helping all of our readers get started on the path to recovery, and you can rest assured that your privacy is our utmost concern.

Reference Sources: The Addiction Recovery Guide: Nurse Addict
Carle: Addiction Recovery Center
Lippincott’s Nursing Center: Addiction: An Occupational Hazard in Nursing
Resurrection Health Care: Nurses with Chemical Dependency: Promoting Successful Treatment and Reentry
HAZELDEN: Nurses overcome barriers to addiction care
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Goecke is a medical doctor and general surgeon with personal experience of...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.

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