The Growing Cases of Real 'Nurse Jackies'

The incidence of nurses who are addicted to either alcohol or drugs is an increasing problem in the healthcare industry. While the numbers climb and more treatment interventions are offered, there are numerous reasons attributed to this increase. Here are 4 reasons that stand out in this growing trend:

1. Stress

The most-often stated reason for the increase in addiction within the nursing population is high levels of stress that nurses have to deal with. As the healthcare community becomes more focused on treating higher numbers of patients at lower costs, budget cuts and increased numbers of patients, the workload for nurses also increase. Due to their ability to provide most of the care necessary for patient treatment at lower costs than physicians, they are essentially the go-to providers of healthcare. Nurses are affected by increasing amounts of responsibility for patient care as well as rising stress levels.

High stress also exists in the healthcare field due to the life-and-death nature of most facilities and service providers. This can lead to high burnout for nurses and doctors alike. When coupled with the increasing patient loads they are being required to carry, it is not surprising that more and more addiction is being recognized in this professional realm.

2. Accessibility

The second most frequent reason for high incidence of addiction in this field is the widespread knowledge of and access to narcotics of all types. Long hours and heavy stress loads at work may not allow nurses to relax without chemical use. While many have learned good coping skills that allow them to de-stress at the end of their shifts, many nurses may not utilize stress management methods that require more effort. Tired and feeling the effects of operating at high levels of cortisol and adrenaline for many hours, it is far easier to look for relief in a drink or a sedative medication.

Given the social focus of drugs in our culture and its powerful use in medicine today, drugs are seen as the "magic" fix to nearly every problem. This focus has a huge impact on our entire population and nurses are inundated with this message at every turn.

Having ready access to stimulant drugs when they need to work a longer shift or when they need to relax after working at high levels of stress for many hours and the day-to-day stresses of life apart from the job can explain the use of drugs in the nursing field to cope with life.

3. Emotional Trauma

Some of the other reasons for drug use in nurses and other healthcare professionals can be the high rates of serious injury, trauma experienced from death and disease in their patients, and the emotional nature of working with families of these patients. Many emotional factors exist in the day-to-day treatment of these conditions; factors that take a toll on even the most well-balanced of people. Add this emotional factor to the high numbers of patients being treated by nurses today, and it begins to make sense that they experience more than most of us can tolerate.

4. Drug Types and Predispositions

The types of drugs most frequently abused also plays another factor. The high potential for addiction to relaxants, sedatives, pain relief medication and stimulant drugs is a big part of the picture. They quickly develop dependence in all users. Coupled with tendency towards escape from emotional and physical stress, users are likely to become not only dependent on the drugs but addicted.

Then there are also people who are likely to develop addictions, those who have heritable and behavioral tendencies which are recognized to be the precursors to the disease of addiction. Not all users who become addicted to drugs and alcohol have the disease of addiction but those who have both the disease and the addiction face double likelihood for problems.

What We're Doing

Today, over 40 states have specific professional treatment for addicted nurses. Along with Boards established to work with nurses in treatment to oversee their education and recovery processes, various states have moved to address this growing concern and retain as many nurses in viable medical professions as possible.

High recidivism is recognized as a danger for this population. However, many nurses operate in the hospitals, healthcare providers' offices, clinics and other settings without return to addictive practices. This retraining and recovery for addicted nurses is a field of expertise for many in the treatment and mental healthcare fields.

High levels of training in stress management and coping skills is a large part of this field. Learning to deal with the emotional imbalances of heavy workloads and life-and-death situations that make up this work is important for the ongoing maintenance of a return to working as a nurse.

Some nurses will change their field of practice to one that is less stress-inducing. Others may find a support-group approach to stress reduction in their place of business, incorporating others in recovery or attending 12-Step meetings on lunch breaks or daily after or before their daily shift. Still others find a practice of stress reduction they can participate in during their work shift.

Many forms of stress-management exist for addicts, whatever their profession. Finding relief in alcohol or drugs can be replaced with healthier diet, exercise and many types of stress reduction practices.


[1] Addiction Treatment for Nurses.Retrieved online from:

[2] Addiction: An Occupational Hazard in Nursing. Maher-Brisen, Patricia. From AJN, American Journal of Nursing, August 2007, Volume 107 Number 8, Pages 78-79. Retrieved online from:

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work and a CATC IV in addictions counseling. She teaches meditation and mindfulness, specializing in addiction and trauma. She also leads workshops and seminars on treatment of addictive disorders and stress reduction.

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