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Are More Nurses Relapsing During the Pandemic?


The stress of working during the pandemic can be overwhelming for some care providers. From losing a colleague or loved one to the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, everyone has been affected by the crisis in one way or another. Nurses across the country are suffering from burnout, depression, and anxiety, all of which can increase the rate of substance abuse.

Around 10% of nurses will misuse drugs or alcohol at some time during their careers. Studies suggest that nurses tend to drink less than the general population, but there is some evidence to suggest that some nurses over the age of 35 binge drink more than the average person.

If you or someone you know have been using as a way of coping with the pandemic, you’re not alone.

The Risk of Substance Abuse Among Nurses

We know that most people are suffering from pandemic-induced stress and anxiety. In a recent poll, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. In addition, 12% reported an increase in alcohol consumption and drug abuse.

In late April, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) reported that “there is strong evidence that nurses are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress.” The report went on to say that nurses are at “high-risk for full-blown stress response syndromes, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic illness and burnout.” They also say nurses are grappling with the lack of childcare, backlash from patients, and financial stress.

Studies show that chronic stress is one of the main drivers of substance abuse. It’s also considered a major risk factor for addiction.

In addition to the stress of the job, the availability of drugs in the workplace can increase the rate of substance abuse among nurses. Studies have shown that nurses are more likely to use drugs when workplace access to substances increases.

Around 92% of all registered nurses are female, and studies suggest that women tend to have a more intense course of addiction once they begin using drugs. However, females initially take drugs at lower doses than males.

An Ominous Sign in Texas

With everything that’s going in the news and healthcare industry, drinking and substance abuse rates seem to have risen among some nurses during the pandemic. A few providers are starting to speak up about how the crisis has led them to drink or use drugs.

A family nurse practitioner in Texas who wishes to remain anonymous recently spoke about her struggles with addiction: “We’re expected to deal with death and difficulty in different stages in life and we’re not supposed to feel or be emotional, and I think a lot of nurses end up using to not feel.”

Using drugs may seem like an alternative to coping with the pain, grief, and confusion that comes with living through the pandemic.

After nine years in the field, the pandemic pushed her to her breaking point. She eventually enrolled in the Texas Peer Assistance Program for Nurses (TPAPN). The group is designed to help nurses find the support and counseling they need to combat their addiction without penalizing them in the process. It’s a safe environment where nurses don’t have to worry about losing their careers.

Individuals are either referred to the program from the Texas Board of Nursing or they can sign up voluntarily. However, Dawn Webb, program director for the TPAPN, says “We highly recommend self-referral because that allows the nurse to stay employed while they’re receiving support.”

The TPANP, which handles around 600 cases at any given time, regularly tests participants for the presence of drugs. The results are then published each quarter. Looking through the reports, positivity rates rose dramatically between March and July of this year, where 7.9% of tests came back positive for addictive substances.

This could mean that more nurses in Texas are turning to drugs and alcohol amid the pandemic. The report shows that the TPAPN also conducted fewer tests during this period compared to those prior.

However, Debb says the lower number of tests performed makes sense, considering the situation. “You had stay home orders, labs not open, nurses may have been exposed to COVID and nurses working in neonatal units and vulnerable populations; we would not want them to go to a lab.”

Fewer drug tests can create blind spots where nurses feel they can get away with using if there’s a good chance they won’t be tested.

Helping Nurses in Need

No one is immune to substance abuse. Everyone should feel comfortable coming forward with issues of addiction, stress, and depression without worrying about losing their jobs in the process. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact a local peer support group for nurses in your area.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing is working to increase access to addiction counseling. They encourage the use of non-disciplinary peer support groups. Instead of penalizing the nurse, “These programs provide the nurse with rapid involvement in a rehabilitation or treatment program and remove the nurse from providing care until safety to practice can be established and confirmed,” as stated on the official NCSBN website.

Visit the NCSBN website to learn more about the benefits of these programs.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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