Substance Abuse Among Healthcare Professionals

Substance Abuse Among Healthcare Professionals

Firefighters, Policeman, Doctors, Nurses…all these inpiduals incorporate what is known as the helping professions. These are people who are on the front line when problems arise. In fact, trauma is part of the job description of these professions. It is something that is seen every day. So, how do these inpiduals deal with this?

Obviously, it takes a certain character and disposition to work in these professions, but even the most qualified inpidual will eventually be affected by what they see and hear. Some people go to counseling, support groups, or exercise to relieve stress. However, for a strikingly large number of inpiduals, seeing trauma on a daily basis leads to substance abuse. This is not only harmful to the inpidual in question, but is also detrimental to the cause they hope to serve.

One of the earlier areas where the connection between trauma and substance abuse was made was regarding Vietnam Veterans. Many Vets were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and were found to be utilizing substances, in all probability to deal with the symptoms of PTSD. Self-medicating is something not specific to veterans health professionals. Utilization of drug and alcohols is something found in physically, sexually, and emotionally abused inpiduals and is therefore not a new phenomenon. However, the effects of trauma and stress on healthcare professionals, is a topic that has not been researched sufficiently.

With any trauma, trying to predict how someone will respond to future trauma is often dependent upon the way they reacted to trauma in the past. There are a variety of different symptoms that an inpidual can experience in relation to trauma. The majority of symptoms can be pided up into four different categories:

  1. Cognitive: intrusive thoughts and reliving the incident, reduced ability to concentrate, or mental confusion.
  2. Behavioral: substance use, withdrawal from others, or acting-out behaviors.
  3. Physical: fatigue, recurring headaches, or inability to sleep or eat.
  4. Emotional: unfounded or unusual anger, depressive feelings, or anxiety reactions.

Certainly most inpiduals will not experience all of these symptoms, but rather a combination of the different categories.

What are the different incidents of substance abuse among different occupations?
  1. Doctors: In a study conducted by Cicala (2003) 8% to 12% of physicians were estimated to develop a substance use problem. Emergency medicine, not surprisingly, and anesthesiology, are usually the highest-risk specialties among doctors. Utilization of opiates and benzodiazepines are danger signs of potential substance abuse among doctors.

  2. Nurses: Trinkoff and Storr (1998) conducted an investigation where substance use was studied among nurses. Thirty-two percent of 4,438 respondents indicated some substance abuse. This cohort was asked about use of the following:

    Again, emergency room nurses were 3.5 times as likely to use substances as general practice or pediatric nurses. Oncology or administrative nurses were 2 times as likely to binge-drink. Psychiatric nurses were 2.5 times as likely as general practice nurses to smoke.

  3. Firefighters: Boxer and Wild (1993) found that more than 40% of firefighters were experiencing psychological distress. Almost 30% of them were experiencing problematic alcohol use. The results of this study indicate that there is a direct correlation between alcohol abuse and high-stress occupations.

  4. Police Officers: According to research, almost 90% of police officers consume alcohol to some degree. At least a quarter of officers are dependent upon alcohol because of on the job stress. Alcohol is used to cope with the stress related to being on the job.

When the terrorist attacks occurred on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, rescue workers on the scene were significantly affected. This also speaks to the importance of secondary traumatic stress. This is stress that occurs from the knowledge that a traumatic event happened to someone else.

In addition, Robbers and Jenkins (2005) found that workers on the scene of the attacks are still experiencing high levels of PTSD. Interestingly, length of exposure at the attack site is related to increased levels of PTSD.

Trauma, substance-abuse related disorders, and stress responses share a common theme that should not be ignored (The need for immediate attention). Intervening in the early stages of these disorders is the way to stop the possibility of exacerbation of the symptoms of these conditions. Inpiduals who are utilizing substances because they are weighed down with the trauma they have experienced are usually too overwhelmed to take care of themselves. It is known that substance abuse can be chronic and have a delayed onset, so catching the problem early can hopefully, stop the progression.

Perhaps the best treatment for a problem of this magnitude is inpidualized treatment regarding the traumatic events. Assuming that these events are what have caused the substance abuse, identifying the stressor should stop the necessitation of substances to control the problem. However, having said that, the utilization of substance abuse treatment should not be discredited. Often times, the inpidual will need a combination of treatments in order to effectively treat their problem. Ideally, programs will be set up specifically for the healthcare professions. This way, the specific traumas these inpiduals experience can be addressed. Treatment programs for these inpiduals are necessary, not only for the sake of the health professional but also for the sake of the people whom these inpiduals have helped and have the potential to assist in the future.

Works Cited
Cicala, R.S. (2003). Substance abuse among physicians: What you need to know. Hospital Physician, 39(7), 39–46.
Cross, C.L., & Ashley, L. (2004). Police trauma and addiction: Coping with the dangers of the job. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 73(10), 24–32.
Flannery, R.B., Jr. (2004). Managing stress in today's age: A concise guide for emergency services personnel. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 6, 205–209.
Friedman, M.J. (2001). Post-traumatic stress disorder: The latest assessment and treatment strategies. Kansas City, MO: Compact Clinicals.
Hughes, P.H., Brandenburg, N., Baldwin, D.C., Jr., Storr, C.L., Williams, K.M., Anthony, J.C., et al. (1992). Prevalence of substance use among US physicians. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267, 2333–2339.
Richmond, R.L., Wodak, A., Kehoe, L., & Heather, N. (1998). How healthy are the police? A survey of life-style factors. Addiction, 93, 1729–1737.
Robbers, M.L.P., & Jenkins, J.M. (2005). Symptomatology of post-traumatic stress disorder among first responders to the Pentagon on 9/11: A preliminary analysis of Arlington Country Police First Responders. Police Practice and Research, 6, 235–249.
Trinkoff, A.M., & Storr, C.L. (1998). Substance use among nurses: Differences between specialties. American Journal of Public Health, 88, 581–585.
Wagner, S.L. (2005). Emergency response service personnel and the critical incident stress debriefing debate. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 7, 33–41.
Weiss, D.S., Marmar, C.R., Schlenger, W.E., Fairbank, J.A., Jordan, B.K., Hough, R.L., et al. (1992). The prevalence of lifetime and partial post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam theater veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5, 365–376.

Topic Discussion

  1. Addict

    i was a ff/medic for 18 yrs. I didn't know I had PTSD. I started withdrawing, experienced high anxiety. When I finally went to an EAP counselor. After evaluating me he recommended rehab. He also called the Chief bc he thought I was high risk. (they're allowed to do that the Chief told me that I had one shot at rehab. The first day in rehab I started talking about the trauma I'd seen. I was transferred to a psych hospital and started on psych meds. The doc said I shouldn't work as a ff for awhile. When the Chief & hr director heard that, they said I couldn't return to work & that I had to apply for disability. The pension office obtained all my medical records from rehab. When the pension board saw my records, they denied my disability. I had to retire on a non-job related pension.
    I'm writing this to warn brother aware that a substance abuse medical record will thwart a pension for ptsd

  2. Addict

    There are the reasons why seeking help is a detriment to people. Substance Abuse is common in psych disorders and trauma and should be understood it is part of the disease. To punish the person for being honest and getting help just gives people the reason not to get help! It is shame the system works like this and protections to the individual should be put in place for trying to get well. I feel bad for you Kevin, you got a bad deal. I'm sure this hasn''t made life better trying to get well.

  3. Addict

    Kevin, I am sorry this happened to you. There should be a law against this kind of determination of you potential future ability to work. After finishing rehab, you should have been allowed to return to work even if it was a job not requiring you to give hands on care. By being a firefighter you have the skills and knowledge to go to schools, and community forums to educate the public on how you can help prevent fires. I hope now in 2013 things are better for you.

Leave a comment


To protect the integrity of our site all comments are reviewed prior to being shown, we apologize for the small delay, but this brings a better experience for our readers. SPAM & rude comments are not tolerated. Using the 'Connect with Facebook' option will get your comment up faster!

Contact A Substance Abuse Counselor

We help people take the first steps toward getting help for their drug and alcohol usage and having drug-free lifestyles. To contact an alcohol/drug abuse counselor, please call 1-800-591-6474(Info iconWho Answers?).

Socialize with us
Close Icon

Where do calls go?

Calls to numbers on a specific treatment center listing will be routed to that treatment center. Additional calls will also be forwarded and returned by a quality treatment center within the USA.

Calls to any general helpline (non-facility specific 1-8XX numbers) for your visit will be answered by a licensed drug and alcohol rehab facility, a paid advertiser on

All calls are private and confidential.