There are high rates of substance use and dangerous mental health stigma among healthcare workers, according to a report released on Thursday by APN, an organization that provides addiction treatment for healthcare professionals, veterans and athletes. The report reveals surprising statistics about the behavior of healthcare workers both on and off the job – including that 1 in 7 doctors admitted to using alcohol or controlled substances on the job.
APN conducted a survey of 1,000 healthcare workers with research firm Censuswide in July. Respondents included physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, social workers, nutritionists, physical and occupational therapists, and medical technicians.
Forty percent of these respondents reported feeling anxiety or dread about going to work, and 49% said they were either at breaking point or looking for a new job because of the stress and trauma they experience on the job. To cope with these feelings, 17% said they use alcohol or controlled substances at least once a day.
Many of the challenges facing the healthcare workforce during Covid and today – from the burnout crisis to staff shortages and from the lack of PPE disease at the start of the pandemic to the rise of patient violence today – have been documented and reported . However, substance abuse among these workers is a problem that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, according to APN CEO Noah Nordheimer.
He pointed out that the problem won’t be fixed until health workers feel comfortable reaching out for help. The report found that healthcare workers are reluctant to get help for several main reasons – being overwhelmed and lacking time, fears of being judged by colleagues or family, and fear of having their license revoked.
“The stigma and the fear of losing their livelihood is what keeps them from getting help,” Nordheimer said. “What they don’t realize is that physician health programs in every state want to help them reach out to providers like APNs and get them back on track. They look to support them, not punish them. We need to normalize treatment, normalize recovery and get them back to work safely.” physician health programs or physician behavioral health programs
The report also revealed that men feel more acutely the stigma surrounding seeking mental health treatment — male healthcare workers are three times less likely to admit they have a problem compared to their female colleagues. As many as 58% of them said they were either at breaking point or looking for a new job due to work-related mental health issues, while a lower proportion of female healthcare workers (45%) responded similarly.
Additionally, the study found that male healthcare workers were more than 5 times more likely to use their healthcare position to obtain controlled substances and 4.5 times more likely to consume alcohol or controlled substances while on the job compared to their female counterparts.
The most effective way to reduce stigma about seeking mental health treatment is to view health care as inclusive of mental health, according to Nordheimer.
“Stigma persists in every demographic, not just health care workers,” he said. “We need a fundamental change in our philosophy about what health is. A person who is physically healthy but struggles mentally is not “well.” Healthcare providers, companies and organizations can set the tone for change by educating and equipping the systems and people who may be affected.”
Nordheimer also noted that the high rates of substance use seen among healthcare workers are not unique to this industry. He said teachers, firefighters, executives and athletes are also not immune from mental health and substance use issues.
“We are all at risk, but when people are the ones we depend on to save us, when we are sick, hurt or in danger, then our antennae must go up to say, ‘We have a problem here,'” Nordheimer I said. “We need to start taking better care of the people who take care of us.”
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