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Talking About Addiction in the High-Risk Profession of Nursing

Nursing is one of the most fast-paced, intense jobs that you can get in the medical field. And while it is a demanding job, many healthcare professionals struggle to maintain their sobriety through a work week. In fact, over time many people in the healthcare field can end up turning to pharmaceutical medications, street drugs, and alcohol for stress relief. However, while nurses are expected to put in long, hectic workdays they may try to self-medicate, or escape from some of the most common symptoms of chronic stress including anger, hostility, and even an increased risk of CVD.1

When healthcare professionals try to relax after a long shift, they may find it difficult to live a normal life because most people do not experience the same type of stress levels they do. Nurses can see trauma during their shift, or have to think so quickly during an emergency that it is difficult to stay calm. And then, when it’s all said and done, they may be able to soother others after having such a hard time in their life, but when it comes to their own personal lives, the responsibility to handle stress may be too much. For this reason, troubleshooting what’s troubling nurses can be a challenge.

Addressing Addiction with Early Detection

Detecting an addiction is vital to keeping a nurse from self-medicating, or reaching for alcohol to avoid their feelings. However, many nurses are able to manipulate conventional forms of addiction detection, so it’s important to know just what to look for.

Here are a few behaviors commonly seen among nurses, and other healthcare professionals to identify if they are struggling with an addiction:

  • Frequent or long trips to the bathroom, stockroom or  drug storage
  • Time spent at work when they are not on the schedule
  • Inconsistent work performance
  • Poor record keeping, unusually bad handwriting and questionable entries
  • Mistakes resulting in drug wastage or insisting on personally administering narcotics injections to patients

The Malibu Hills Treatment Center compiled this list of points to watch out for so you can notice any type of substance abuse issue within your nursing community. Additionally, you may notice these signs of addiction in nurses, or other healthcare professionals:

  • Increased absences from work
  • Isolation and guilty or secretive behavior
  • Changes in appetite, energy levels or sleep patterns
  • Increased agitation or irritability
  • Unexplained changes in personality
  • New financial concerns or an urgency around money

Talking About Your Suspicions

You may become suspicious if you see a nursing peer, friend, or family member showing some of these signs of an addiction. But it could be difficult to talk to them about your suspicions as it can be a little scary to consider someone you care about could be struggling with substance abuse. However, it is very important that you encourage the person you see showing these signs of addiction to seek help.

Here are 3 tips to talking about your suspicions:   

  1. Trust Your Instincts. Your intuition is powerful, so go ahead and trust it! Start by listening to your inner voice about how you feel about any of the above signs of addiction you see in a peer, or loved one. Then, focus on that feeling and place your hand (palm open) on your belly. Then, literally just trust your gut and go with what it tells you.
  2. Don’t Seek Approval. When you listen to your gut, the next step is trusting it. So, don’t wait for any type of confirmation that your gut instinct is true. Just listen to it! And then, take the action that you need to in order to help your nursing peer, or loved one.
  1. Get Tough. It can be really difficult to say something about the signs of addiction you notice in a peer or loved one. But you need to know that sometimes, you just have to be tough. So, think about what you will need to say in order to talk about the signs of addiction you noticed, and then stand your ground when you deliver your message of concern.

These 3 simple steps to talking about the signs of addiction may help to ease the process of addressing the problem. However, you will need to prepare yourself for the possibility that the healthcare professional you want to talk to may not want to hear it. You see, the nursing community is one that is highly vulnerable to the grasp of addiction as their lives include a large amount of stress, and accessibility to pharmaceutical medications that can become addictive. This type of lifestyle also may come along with a false sense of confidence, as many nurses feel they have enough knowledge about medications not to struggle with addiction. But they could be wrong, and be too afraid, or confused about their abuse to ask for help.

Although it is very difficult to confront someone you care about with suspicions of self-medicating, or substance abuse, nurses are usually more comfortable talking about their problems when they feel comfortable. So, if you want to talk about suspicious activity you see in a peer, or other healthcare professional, try to first eliminate their fears of being reported to their superior, or being a catalyst for drama among their co-workers. It is very important that you try to make the healthcare professional you are approaching with suspicion comfortable about talking to you about their potential substance abuse. That way, they can be honest with you, and not try to avoid talking about their problem.

A Final Note on Addiction in Nursing

Healthcare professionals including doctors, and nurses are apart of a close community of caregivers. They deal with a lot of stress, but within a supportive work environment. This type of workplace supplies the ideal environment for self-medicating, and substance abuse. Not only do these professionals have constant access to addicting medications, but they also have the ability to (seemingly) manage their own health.

So, talking to a nurse about a potential addiction can be intimidating. Use these tips to addressing addiction in nurses and other healthcare professionals to make the process easier. And never ever give up if you feel like something could be wrong with a nursing peer, friend, or loved one. It’s ok to talk about addiction.


  1. Susan A. Everson-Rose, Nicholas S. Roetker. Chronic Stress, Depressive Symptoms, Anger, Hostility, and Risk of Stroke and Transient Ischemic Attack in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Stroke. 2014;45:2318-2323.


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