Nurses are a valuable and influential group in our society, and they work to provide us health care in various fields. Nurses’ role in modern medicine has expanded over the years, increasing their workload adding to the stress of taxing field. When you factor in the high pressure of a job combined with easy access to potent medications, it can make nurses vulnerable to becoming chemically dependent on coping with the rigors of their career. 

We value nurses at a high level, adding to the stress of their job. Perfection is the expectation, and in this profession, there is no room for error. A simple mistake in the nursing field can mean the difference between life and death. It’s understandable why some nurses may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

According to Psychology Today, the dependence on drugs and alcohol among nurses hovers around 10 percent, which is a statistic that falls in line with the general population. There are roughly 4 million nurses in the United States, four times the number of physicians, and the nurses are the backbone of the nation’s health care system.

Doctors and nurses are continually pressured to increase their workload and see more patients, and nurses are burdened with tasks traditionally performed by doctors. These extended hours and easy access to addictive medications is the perfect combination for nurses to turn to mood altering substances. So what happens when the nurses become addicted to drugs or alcohol?

Nurses are seen as informed consumers when it comes to health care and medications and will know the inherent dangers when it comes to addictive medications. The abuse of illicit drugs is lower among nurses compared to the general public because of this. However, nurses can get doctors to prescribe a drug to them or divert medications meant for a patient. Nurses are also fluent with administering addictive medications, which tends to inhibit negative thoughts around self-administration.

Forty percent of nurses who were disciplined for substance abuse used prescription medication to treat chronic pain. Nurses are typically the problem-solvers in a patient care setting and have difficulty accepting or asking for medical help. When nurses do seek treatment, it is hard for them to take their role as a patient which compromises the healing process. As someone who considers themselves in control of health care, it is hard to let go and allow someone else to treat you. It is a delicate balance that requires tested professionals to manage.

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. The disease is also characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavior control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. 

The disease can occur in anyone, and although we hold our nurses to a higher standard, they are still prone to developing the disease over time. We must monitor and offer help in a caring and professional manner. The next question we must ask ourselves is why do nurses abuse drugs or alcohol?

What Causes Nurses to Abuse Drugs or Alcohol?

There are several reasons why nurses can begin abusing drugs. The stress of their jobs is the main factor, but once they leave work, we don’t always know what is going on. They can be the victims of an abusive relationship, their family members may be sick, or they may face other situations for a variety of reasons. There are more common reasons, however, that can push some nurses to abuse drugs.


Nurses offer physical and emotional support daily to patients and their families with little to no help. The range of emotions that can be experienced on the job site can be guilt, despair, and anxiety. Imagine walking into a room with a family that knows their son, daughter, mother, or father is dying. Often, there is no fix to what is happening to that person, and a nurse must be the therapist, the hero, a mother, a father, and everything in between. A survey found that 63 percent of participating nurses experienced physical or mental side effects of job-related stress.

Stress has the potential to cause insomnia, and in a profession where shifts can range from 12 to 24 hours, shut-eye matters in their off time, Stress can also cause nervousness or depression, which are considerable contributors to substance abuse. Nurses go from one emotionally and physically demanding situation to another without a moment to decompress. All of this can lead to the nurse seeking out substances that can alleviate some of these internal pressures.

Drug Accessibility 

Hospitals are the epicenter of prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and sedatives that can help alleviate the stresses the nurses endure. Unfortunately, someone who has developed a substance use disorder can find these places to be their cure-all. Unlimited access to drugs coupled with cravings to overcome their stress is a receipt for disaster. Workplace access with substances made nurses more likely to use drugs when their access increased. Unfortunately, someone who is sober from using drugs can also be tempted and can lead to relapse

Signs of Nurses Abusing Substances

Identifying drug abuse in the early stages is often difficult, but a professional who can hide their signs may be even more difficult. While drug abuse will eventually rear its ugly head and be unable to protect, it’s important to understand these signs early on and save someone from developing a full-blown addiction. Nurses can appear in good spirits and remain professional despite their drug abuse.

A List of General Signs To Be Aware Of Includes:

  • Tremors
  • Unkempt appearance
  • Frequent use of mouthwash or breath mints
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dilated pupils
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom

In most situations, nurses will not admit their substance use disorders and fail to report to the proper authority. Unfortunately, it is understandable because they know that disciplinary action is coming and could affect the rest of their careers. It is more important to them to keep their jobs than to admit they have a drug problem. 

Nurses who have a substance use disorder can also place a financial burden on their organizations. The United States alone experiences a significant toll from drug abuse that is estimated at $740 billion a year. Nurses may use their health benefits more often, fail to show up for work, or perform poorly as a result of their substance abuse. They are also prone to making medical errors that can cause death in their patients.

How Can a Nurse Get Help?

More states are becoming aware of the issue and taking action. In 2014, New Hampshire passed a law that requires hospitals to establish procedures for prevention, detection, and resolution of substance abuse in the workplace. As we mentioned earlier in the article, nurses often have a difficult time allowing themselves to be the patient. When entering into treatment, they must allow themselves to let go and be part of the treatment plan. Addiction is a disease we cannot control, and letting go of that controlling nature to be a nurse is the first step.

As a nurse, you are aware of the difference between average and exceptional treatment, and you must seek out the best treatment plan for your specific needs. Some programs offer a much more caring approach than others. Addiction treatment centers for nurses must provide a customized approach to the issue as opposed to the cookie-cutter means of treating addiction. 

There is no single cure for addiction, nor is there only one approach that works to handle it. We must take into consideration that all individuals need a specific strategy and apply that to their treatment.

Are You a Nurse Who Needs Help? Call Serenity at Summit Today 

Are you a nurse struggling with a substance use disorder? Our addiction specialists at Serenity at Summit want to help you today. Our experts can help you transition into sobriety and mitigate the dangers associated with withdrawal to drugs or alcohol. We understand this is a difficult time for you, and want to help you in any way that we can and provide discreet care.

Let Serenity at Summit utilize our years of experience to treat your addiction and find the underlying causes pushing you to use drugs. Our addiction specialists are ready to listen to your story right now. Feel free to give us a call 855-956-4940 or contact us online to learn more about how we can help.

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