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Substance Abuse Among Nurses: A Silent Epidemic


Red Ribbon Week
It’s Red Ribbon Week, an awareness week that was founded in 1985 in the wake of the brutal murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. Red Ribbon Week is a bit of an awareness melange, simultaneously bringing attention to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and violence. Overall, it commemorates the very real violence involved in the illicit drug trade.

In keeping with the substance abuse awareness theme, we’d like to take this opportunity to draw attention to a very important issue within the nursing community. It’s not often brought up or talked about, but its growing prevalence is disturbing. We’re talking about substance abuse among nurses, especially the abuse of opioid pharmaceuticals. Every day, thousands of nurses struggle with opioid dependence, a problem that can be invisible to their friends, family, and colleagues. Many of them will eventually die of an accidental overdose, unless they seek treatment and rehabilitation.

Understanding Addiction

“Addiction” can be a pretty broad term, and psychoactive pharmaceuticals aren’t the only thing that can become addictive. Compulsive behaviors, like gambling or even video games, are involved with similar neural pathways. Some substances are very likely to result in dependence, especially opioids. Indeed, attention has recently been directed toward the high rates of opioid addiction and dependence among chronic pain patients who were originally prescribed these drugs by a physician.

Opioids are chemicals, similar to those present naturally in Papaver somnifum, the poppy, which has a long history of use as a mood-altering drug, hypnotic agent, and analgesic. Opiates like morphine and codeine were originally derived from the plant, while opioids like fentanyl are synthetic or semi-synthetic. These chemicals affect the brain’s opioid receptors, which were named after opium itself.

Opioid medications are poorly suited for treating chronic pain, but they have many legitimate applications in medicine for things like post-surgical pain and palliative care. But today, America as a whole is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, which presents a serious threat to public health.

Every single day, 3,900 people use opioids for nonmedical purposes. 580 people initiate heroin use, an unfortunate and unforeseen side effect of the ongoing effort to better regulate and reduce the medical use of opioids. 78 people die of an opioid-related overdose. Americans consume 80% of the world’s total supply of opioids, despite making up only 4.6% of the world’s population.

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