Nursing is a highly esteemed profession but still has its negative aspects. Because of the demanding and stressful nature of the job, many nurses have fallen in the trap of substance abuse. On shows like 'Nurse Jackie', this unfortunate truth is made known to the public but the problem is more prevalent than most people realize.

"It has been estimated that 10 to 15 percent of all nurses in the United States are addicted to some type of illegal or controlled substance," explained Art Zwerling, MS, MSN, CRNA, FAAN, a nurse anesthetist educator and member of the peer assistance program at the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.

While the risk of addiction is not limited to any one specialty, the specialties with the highest prevalence of substance abuse uses are ICU, ER, OR, and anesthesia.

There are several reasons for this in our profession:

  • Job stress. Long hours/stress related to caring for the sick/dying.
  • Job work area. You will notice above that nurses working in ICU, ER, OR, or anesthesia have the highest prevalence of substance abuse. These are considered very high stress work settings.
  • Easy access to medications.
  • Workaholic personality leads to other addictions.
  • In general, nurses take care of others first and themselves last. This leads to addiction to "hide" personal needs and tend to the needs of the patients.

What can I do as a nurse if I suspect a co-worker is addicted to drugs or alcohol?

  • The worst you can do is nothing.
  • Approaching the nurse directly will likely meet with resistance and denial.
  • Report your suspicions to management. This will lead to the nurse getting help. Most employers offer drug/alcohol treatment programs. An employer would rather treat a nurse and get her back to work than to have to invest/train in a new nurse.
  • Do not feel guilty about reporting your suspicions. If you are wrong, no harm done. But if your suspicions are correct, you have helped a fellow nurse get his/her life back on track, have contributed to patient safety, and have promoted the positives of the nursing profession.
  • Speaking of patient safety: "Statistics indicate that employed people who abuse substances are unreliable on the jobs," according to Without going into more detail, this statement says it all. You owe it to your patients to give them reliable care. If you are working with an addicted nurse, you are not being fair to your patients.
  • Need another example? "Compared to nonusers, alcohol and illicit drug  users are more likely to have been involved in a workplace accident in the past year," according to Again, think about the safety of the potentially addicted nurse, your patients, co-workers and, yes, yourself.

What if I am a nurse and think I am addicted to drugs or alcohol?

  • Ask for help. Addiction is an illness. You need help in recovery. There are substance abuse nurse organizations that can help, but not if you don't ask.
  • Don't wait until you resort to stealing, cheating, or lying to feed your addiction. Get help early. Your supervisors and peers will respect you for your efforts.
  • Protect your nursing license. By getting help and staying clean, you protect what you have worked so hard to earn, in a profession you are proud to be in.
  • Become an advocate. Help other nurses in your community with addiction issues. As stated above, over 10 percent of nurses are addicted to drugs or alcohol.