The stigma of drug abuse among nurses

The disease of addiction still carries stigma. And there is often added stigma for nurse addicts. We offer reasons that society judges medical staff who are substance users and abusers…and suggestions for how to decrease the stigma of drug abuse among nurses here.

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The disease of drug addiction among nurses

Addiction has an incredible power to lead people to do things that are so out of line with their normal behavior. If a nurse doesn’t have a good support system and effective ways to cope with the stressors, often they will turn to drugs. And although nurses are as likely as anyone else to abuse drugs, but they differ from the rest of society in the kinds of drugs they use. They abuse the drugs that are available and accessible to them. Many times that is a narcotic. Some of the reasons they turn to drugs are stress relief, depression and pain.

Drug addiction and alcoholism is still stigmatized

One disease that has and still does carry a stigma is addiction. Society has placed this stigma on anyone with the word addiction attached to them. Depression used to carry a stigma, but it really doesn’t anymore. Depression has been ‘accepted’ as a true disease, therefore does not carry that stigma anymore. Being a nurse with an addiction carries an even bigger stigma. Three reasons that there is often added stigma for nurse addicts include:

1. Nurses are looked at as the caregiver. There is added shame and guilt around the use of narcotics. That feeling of shame and guilt is multiplied when the nurse takes medication from patients. Nurses feel they are the caregivers, not the ones that need taken care of.

2. Nurses are more reluctant to admit they have a problem and seek help, even if they realize there is a problem. They fear they may lose their license if found out. And, that stigma of being a nurse who lost their license is huge.

3. Nurses feel incredible shame, because they not only violated their personal code of ethics, but also their professional code of ethics. The second one is more distressing. Nurses are very proud of their profession and when they fall to addiction, they fear that stigma of being the ‘addicted nurse’ among their colleagues.

How to decrease misunderstandings about addiction

Given the negative ways people view medical staff who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, we believe that there are ways that our society can address these prejudices. Here are two very important ways that stigma among nurses could be alleviated. If you have other ideas to add, please comment below!

1. Treat addicts with medical help instead of jail

If a person is charged with a violation that stems from substance abuse, they are thrown into jail with no treatment. Addiction is a disease and it needs treated. If you put a person in jail and don’t treat the problem, the problem is still there when they get out. We need to do more treatment in jails.

2. Educate medical staff about substance abuse and addiction

Stigmas could be addressed by incorporating drug dependency subjects in the curriculum for nursing degrees and also inservices for all practicing nurses so they can understand the disease of addiction and the help needed by a nurse suffering from addiction.

About the author
Nurse N Recovery has been an RN for 16 years. Most of those years were spent in Critical Care. 4 years ago, she became addicted to narcotics. She is now in drug addiction recovery and has developed a website to help others suffering from addiction.


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  1. There are some partial solutions to the over prescribing problem that modern medicine has cavalierly cast aside.

    One simple remedy is and has been putting the medication called Zomax. Zomax is an oral non-steroidal anti inflammatory medication that has a medical efficacy for pain relief. this medication was deemed unacceptable because anaphylactic reactions in rare cases. I am dumb founded that this medication hasn’t been used to date. I’ve done the research and used Zomax when it was available. The medication meets its claims as being an alternative to schedule II medication. I’d be irate about the suppression of the facts if it were in my character would permit it. This information has been available since 1983.I only mention this solution now because this problem has come to to the attention of a majority of health care providers.

    I am tired of the medical community exercising suppression with out examination. I would not hesitate to say that providers who do not of the offer this solution with the risk of the consequences addiction would be committing malpractice.

    Now you goons rejoice that the problem of chronic pain and subsequent narcotic abuse has such a simple solution to such a problem.

  2. What some states need to do, is that if a nurse enters into a consent agreement and have jumped through all the hoops and became and stayed clean. The states board should take their name off online PDF’s. Massachusetts has PDF”s going back as far as January, 2006. Over 1/3 of those nurses have been through treatment and are clean, if the complaint is drug related. 5 and 1/2 years of names. It is the 21st century of scarlet letter.

    1. Hello J. Rodgers. I see your point and I think it is unfair for people of certain professions (among which are nurses, doctors and other medical professionals) to be labelled for life and even banned from working in their profession because of past substance abuse issues. These are very stressful jobs with shifts lasting for over 16 hours, so while I’m not justifying – I can at least understand. But, if they are recovered and no longer using any substances, it is not ok not to give them a second chance and clear their name.

  3. Hi Cindy. You can search the SAMHSA treatment locator database by city and state. A brief search for Richmond, VA showed 8 results within 20 miles of the city center. Please let me know if you need more help.

  4. I’m so happy to have found this blog. As a nurse I have suffered many years of trying to beat my addiction by myself for fear of losing the most important thing iv’e accomplished in my life, my RN degree. I love being a nurse. I started out as an x-ray tech at a local trauma center and fell in love with the ER staff immediately. I could relate to their sense of humor and really had fun at work while learning something new everyday.
    Soon I knew I had to move on from x-ray and become an RN. I struggled through school (just because I hate class) but when the nursing courses started I excelled. I loved every minute of it. I was fortunate enough to get an internship at a local ER where I stayed for 10 years.
    One night I made a mistake of shopping with a friend and had a margarita and got pulled over and received a DWI. This has been the death of me. THe Texas nursing board is not easy on us offenders. So i self reported to my peer assistance program. i made it 11 months. Just got a positive alcohol screening and was kicked out of the program. They will report me to the board of nursing. I started drinking because the death of my sisters husband. He was 50. Diagnosed with carcinoma of unknown origin and died 6 weeks later. They have a fabulous 5 yr old Olivia. Needless to say I am helping raise her too. The stress has died down but what done is done.
    i’m in another outpatient program for professionals. Its great. Time consuming but awesome. There is another nurse and pharmacist in the program which helps me not feel so lonely.
    I’ve got a fab lawyer in Austin that deals with the board a lot! Looks like it will be a waiting game.
    The good news is I still have my job. My boss is behind me 100%. He is sober himself.
    I really really needed this website!!! Thank you so much! It’s so nice to hear another nurse in recovery. I would love to talk more. I have some other questions about the board and stuff like that if possible you could contact me. Thank you!

  5. This is a great article. I am a nurse in recovery and everything said here rings true for me and has definitley made me feel less alone in my profession as a recovering addict. Thank you!

  6. The addiction to any substance for example the addiction to painkillers such as hydrocodone must be controlled and makes it that many people engage in acts that would not do if they were healthy. Do not blame the substances or pain relievers that can be purchased on line without prescription but the person that is not controlled to take them.

    Jym Leonhard

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