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Health Care Professionals and Substance AbuseIn the early 1950s, a new disorder was identified based on a person’s reaction to traumatic events experienced in his or her life: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Self-medicating through illicit drugs or through the abuse of alcohol is not an uncommon response to this disorder; some professions are more liable to have its practitioners experience trauma than others, placing them at risk for substance abuse. Soldiers, fire-fighters and policemen — they all have the potential to develop post traumatic stress disorders, but so health care professionals, such as doctors and nurses. To reduce their stress, some people exercise, some people seek out counseling, and some support groups, but even with all these precautions, a certain percentage of people in health care will turn to substance abuse.

Society is familiar with the idea of trauma affecting soldiers; it recognizes that physical, sexual and emotional abuse can lead to later substance abuse, but it hasn’t examined as thoroughly what happens to health care professionals. Some studies, though, suggest that eight to twelve percent of physicians may develop a substance use problem. The higher the trauma, the more likely the abuse; emergency room doctors, then, are at a higher risk than other specialties.

In another study, 32 percent of 4,438 nurses indicated substance abuse. Emergency room nurses were 3.5 times as likely to abuse substances (nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, prescription drugs, and marijuana) as nurses in general practice or pediatrics. Oncology or administrative nurses were twice as likely to binge drink, while psychiatric nurses were two and a half times as likely to smoke than those nurses in general practice.

Anyone working in these professions should be aware that these stress disorders can occur, and to be aware of the warning signs. The signs fall into four areas:

  1. Behavioral, including acting out, withdrawal from others, and substance abuse;
  2. Physical, including an inability to sleep or eat, repeating headaches, and fatigue;
  3. Cognitive, including a diminished ability to concentrate, mental confusion, intrusive thoughts that force one to relive the trauma; and
  4. Emotional, including feelings of anxiety, depression and unjustified or unusual anger.

Often people engaged in substance abuse are too overwhelmed to be able to care for themselves; understanding the warning signs, and whether or not one has been exposed to traumatic events (placing one at risk) is crucial to getting the proper care. In order to keep the symptoms from becoming worse, those in the health profession who have turned to substance abuse should seek out help as early as possible The health care professional may need programs directed specifically to his or her concerns — individualized treatment — or a combination of treatment programs to deal with the problem.

If you or a loved one need help with substance abuse, contact one of our listed treatment facilities today.


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