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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