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By the time most people seek help at a rehab facility, addiction has devastated their lives. It is extremely difficult to admit you have a problem and go through the detox and treatment process. Patients have often lost their friends, families, jobs, and so much more — all because of the disease of addiction.

As a whole, drug and alcohol addiction affects more than 40 million people per year, placing it on par with other deadly and costly chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

And yet, the medical community does not give addiction the same attention or resources as other chronic diseases. Hospitals and smaller treatment facilities are struggling to recruit and retain staff. We desperately need more nurses in addiction treatment. 

Lingering Effects of a Global Pandemic

COVID-19 has caused enormous strain and burnout on nurses around the world as they continue to care for patients and save lives. The national average for turnover rates is as high as 37% in some areas.

The American Nurses Association estimates there will be more open jobs for registered nurses this year than for any other profession. On a local level, experts predict California will have the most severe shortage of RNs, with a projected deficit of over 44,000 nurses by 2030.

To make an already catastrophic pandemic worse, as the available nursing labor force decreases, overdose deaths and the number of people needing addiction treatment have skyrocketed. 

There has been a significant increase in overdose deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The CDC reported over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021, making it the worst year for drug overdoses in U.S. history.

As a state, California’s reported overdose deaths more than doubled, increasing from 5,515 to 11,156 deaths between January 2019 and January 2022.

Our country has never been in more dire need of addiction care.

A Stigma’s Effect on the Nursing Shortage

The stigma surrounding addiction can affect people’s attitudes toward those who suffer from the disease and become a barrier to treatment. Despite scientific evidence that proves otherwise, many people still falsely believe addiction is a choice, and that those who live with addiction are dangerous and only have themselves to blame for their conditions.

These unfounded thoughts can even influence the way healthcare workers perceive patients with substance use disorders and how they provide care. 

Additionally, I would argue that stigma plays a factor in the shortage of nurses and other healthcare providers in this field.

To counteract stigma, I strive to make sure our team at Laguna Treatment Hospital understands that addiction is a disease and that compassion is essential. We reinforce the idea that connection with each individual battling addiction helps them embrace the treatment and services we offer.

As addiction treatment providers, we are not here to judge, condemn or question. We are here to offer the hope and support that will help each person entering our treatment facility achieve long-lasting success. 

Schools Don’t Teach Addiction Medicine

Addiction is underrepresented in nursing education programs. Most students complete their rotations in pediatrics, obstetrics, emergency medicine, or surgery, which may explain why these specialties are ultimately more popular among recent graduates.

I didn’t consider entering the field of addiction when I was starting my nursing career for this very reason.

Why nursing schools don’t teach addiction treatment remains a mystery to me. In addiction medicine, we have the opportunity to explore the complex relationship between the mind and body.

Treatment professionals utilize both behavioral and traditional nursing skills, which allows us the opportunity and time to utilize a broad skillset and look at the whole patient, rather than only tending to their immediate physical needs.

My belief is that, if nursing schools started including addiction education in their curriculum, it would open a lot of people’s eyes to how rewarding this field can truly be.

This is Life-Saving Work

Addiction treatment saves lives, and nurses play a monumental role in this process. We often see people coming in that have just overdosed or almost overdosed, and we help them overcome their addiction and rebuild their lives.

Although addiction treatment programs are struggling to meet the increasing need in nurses, I have not given up hope. I encourage our society to continue to reframe their view of addiction as a disease — not a choice — and to include addiction medicine education in nursing programs.

Without more representation in the medical and nursing communities, addiction treatment will continue to suffer. 

Barbara Saak is a registered nurse and CEO of Laguna Treatment Hospital, an evidence-based addiction rehab facility in Aliso Viejo.


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