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Addiction and Nursing

When my buddy Jason first got into his nursing program, I was excited for him. Nursing is an honorable profession, one that is constantly in demand and provides certain stability that other career paths may not.

His first few semesters were rough, understandably. The competitiveness of his nursing program, the long clinical hours, and the constant full exertion required eventually took its toll on him.

By the time he became a nurse, I hardly saw him at all. He began to ignore our invitations to go out with friends and got defensive whenever we gave him a hard time about it.

When we finally did see him, he was always on edge, flighty, and nervous. Many of our friends began to question his mental health, but I knew what had happened.

Jason was struggling with addiction.

All of the signs and symptoms were there, as were the growing pressures that led him to an addiction.

It didn’t take long for my friend to seek help and eventually sober up. He was committed to his role as a nurse and even more committed to providing the healthcare that he promised to provide once he received his license.

But with my work in addiction recovery, it became apparent to me that this was a real epidemic both in the general population and among nurses. If you’re not sure whether or not you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, then read through for symptoms of addiction and withdrawal to find out.

I’ll also outline some ways to provide support so that the nurse in your life can get back to the job they love so much without the dangerous effects of an addiction.

Substance Abuse in the Medical Profession Versus General Population

Surprisingly, dependence on alcohol and drugs for nurses isn’t too far off from that of the general population. While some may assume that nurses would stay away from an addiction, about 10% of nurses struggle with an addiction of some sort.

Considering that there are about four million nurses in the U.S. alone, roughly four times the amount of physicians we have, it’s a staggering number of medical professionals who are in the throes of addiction.

As the shortage of nurses continues to rise, so does the job stress and lack of resources to support them.

Nurses have been tasked with roles that are traditionally performed by physicians and are expected to work long hours in constantly rotating shifts, making the work environment for nurses especially challenging.

Plus, they have easy access to virtually any prescription pill on the market.

But because they work with medications so regularly, many of them have intellectualized use and abuse to the point of failing to recognize when they themselves are addicted.

Symptoms of Opiate Addiction and Withdrawal

There are several different things to look for, though signs and symptoms can generally be broken down into two categories: signs of intoxication and signs of withdrawal.

Signs of opiate intoxication generally include:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Poor memory and concentration

If any of these signs appear when they were previously absent, then it’s possible that this person is battling an addiction.

Signs of opiate withdrawal include:

  • More vomiting and nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Intense anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • More sweating
  • Extreme irritability

While some of these symptoms can be present due to lack of sleep and stressful situations, they tend to be a bit more extreme in those experiencing withdrawal.

Another thing to watch out for that is super specific to nurses is whether or not this person is offering to cover more shifts than usual. While most people would try to get out of work, an addict in the medical field might ask for more work opportunities so that they have more access to their drug of choice.

In either case, whether intoxicated or experiencing withdrawals, an untreated chemical dependence such as this can impair judgment, slow a person’s reaction time significantly, and increase life-threatening errors that may harm a patient.

How to Support Someone With an Addiction

Nurses have had to work exceptionally hard to get to where they’re at professionally. Understandably, many nurses have a touch of perfectionism. Though this makes them excellent students and even better nurses, it can sometimes make the recovery process a little challenging.

Perfectionism in addiction recovery is actually a pretty common issue, according to Detoxes. And though perfectionism is generally a helpful trait, it can get in the way of recovery.

Rather than expecting perfection out of your friend or colleague, try a few supportive approaches, instead. Consider that nurses addicted to drugs have unique cases where a recovery program may prevent them from continuing to work as a nurse, at least during their recovery period. Also consider that there might be a lot of shame surrounding the addiction, or that the person may not recognize the addiction at first.

Approach the topic gently and explore all options for a full and safe recovery.

For full support and guidance, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has put together a handful of resources to help you navigate the recovery process.

My buddy Jason was fortunate to be able to heal from his addiction and I hope for the same for all nurses struggling with addiction. The first step to ensuring this is to recognize that the risk exists right in your own station.

The author, an addiction recovery advocate, requested anonymity for publication of this piece. Names of others have also been changed for anonymity. This story was originally published by Daily Nurse, a trusted source for nursing news and information and a portal for the latest jobs, scholarships, and books from Springer Publishing Company.


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