Nurse Types / Substance Abuse Nurse
Substance abuse affects nearly 21 million Americans. Only 10% of those struggling with addiction receive treatment. Addiction care services require the expertise of many healthcare professionals. Substance abuse nurses are among them.
If you’re a nursing professional looking for a change in your career, becoming a substance abuse nurse might be an excellent choice.
In this article you’ll discover:
- What is a substance abuse nurse?
- What do substance abuse nurses do?
- Where do substance abuse nurses work?
- What are closely related fields?
- How do you become a substance abuse nurse in 3 steps?
- What are additional requirements of substance abuse nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for substance abuse nurses?
What is a substance abuse nurse?
A substance abuse nurse specializes in treating patients addicted to alcohol, drugs, and other substances. Sometimes called addiction nurses, they are trained in both general medicine and mental health.
When you become a substance abuse nurse, you’re tasked with educating your patients and their caregivers about the dangers of substance abuse. You also might provide emotional support to patients in crisis at any stage in their addiction recovery.
Qualities of a successful substance abuse nurse
- Excellent interpersonal skills
- Strong communication
- Ability to collaborate with other healthcare professionals
What do substance abuse nurses do?
Substance abuse nurses are healthcare professionals, mental health advisors, and community advocates, all rolled into one. As a substance abuse nurse, you’ll help patients learn to cope with and recover from their addictions. Some of the most common day-to-day tasks you can expect in this role include:
- Administering medications prescribed for pain management
- Conducting mental health screenings
- Providing emotional support services
- Delivering direct-patient care to patients
- Monitoring patient progress
- Determining if care plan adjustments are needed
- Providing education and support to patients and their families
- Regulating treatment plans for substance abuse patients
A day in the life of a substance abuse nurse
A day in the life of a substance abuse nurse has many ups and downs, emotionally and physically. Each shift starts with an assessment of patient progress and mental and physical status. If a patient is in detox or residential care, you’ll need to perform assessments at least twice during your shift.
Medication management takes up a significant portion of your shift. You must ensure medication is filled and taken at the recommended times. Conferring with other members of the patient’s recovery team can happen daily or weekly.
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Common conditions treated by substance abuse nurses
Substance abuse nurses treat patients during the recovery process. You’ll often have patients with complex mental or physical health needs that extend beyond addiction.
Between 3 and 19% of substance abuse patients developed an addiction from prescribed pain medication. You may need to address the addiction plus the underlying condition that caused the patient to abuse prescription painkillers.
Another reason some people become addicted to alcohol, drugs, and other substances is to cope with mental health crises and disorders. Your patients may need ongoing emotional or psychological support.
Where do substance abuse nurses work?
Substance abuse nurses work in any healthcare setting that offers substance abuse and addiction recovery support and treatment. The most common work environments for substance abuse nurses include:
- Inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment centers
- Mental health clinics
- Psychiatric wards in hospitals
What are closely related fields?
Similar occupations to substance abuse nursing include:
- Health education specialists
- Community health workers
- Rehabilitation counselors
- Social workers
How do you become a substance abuse nurse in 3 steps?
Substance abuse is a nursing specialty, so you’ll first need to become an RN if you don’t already hold you RN licensure. Other steps include gaining relevant experience and becoming certified.
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse (RN)
The first step in your journey to becoming a substance abuse nurse is to earn your RN licensure. If you are currently a licensed practical nurse (LPN), you can take the NCLEX-RN exam. However, many healthcare employers have begun to prefer RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
Earn a BSN degree
There are several ways to earn a BSN degree. Many nursing professionals already working in their field opt for attending a BSN program while continuing to work. RNs can participate in an RN-to-BSN program designed to take the skills they already have and build on them. These programs usually take up to 2-3 years to complete.
Accelerated BSN programs are ideal if you hold a BSN in another discipline and want to switch to nursing. You can expect to focus on nursing education in one of these specialized curriculums.
Pass the NCLEX-RN exam
After you earn your BSN, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam if you have not already done so. You can familiarize yourself with the format of the test by visiting the official exam website. There you’ll find practice exams and other test-prep materials for obtaining your RN licensure.
You can take the test again if you don’t pass on your first try. There is a 45-day waiting period between attempts.
Step 2 – Accumulate experience
You’ll want to gain some relevant experience in substance abuse nursing as an RN. Patients recovering from substance abuse can suffer from acute illnesses. You’ll have a variety of settings where you can provide direct patient care while gaining on-the-job proficiency.
Try working in and inpatient and outpatient detox program to focus on the physical effects of substance abuse. You’ll gain knowledge about how to treat the symptoms of substance abuse, including withdrawal.
Psychiatric centers emphasize the mental effects of substance abuse. In this setting, you can practice emotional support for patients.
See if you can shadow substance abuse nurses in different settings to learn more about the profession and see if it’s a good fit for you.
Helpful skills and experience
Compassion and empathy are your go-to skills if you want to work as a substance abuse nurse. Working alongside other nurses in this specialty can help you gain the experience needed to improve patient outcomes and expand your advancement opportunities in nursing.
Changing specialty to a substance abuse nurse
If you’re already working as an RN and want to switch over to a substance abuse nursing specialty, you can use your current licensure to help get you there.
You can concentrate on taking continuing education courses that relate to addiction nursing. Then, you can obtain certifications addiction recovery services look for when hiring substance abuse nurses.
Step 3 – Obtain certifications
The final step in becoming a substance abuse nurse is to obtain certifications relevant to your specialty.
One of the most popular choices is the Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN) certification. You must complete 2,000 hours of professional nursing experience in a substance abuse setting, plus 30 hours of continuing educated related to addictions nursing.
Additional certifications are available, but you must have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to qualify.
What are additional requirements of substance abuse nurses?
You’ll need to maintain your credentials to continue working as a substance abuse nurse. Your RN licensure must be renewed according to the terms set forth by the state board of nursing in your state of practice.
Certifications may need to be renewed. You can check with the issuing body to find out the specific criteria for keeping your certification in good standing.
What are the salary and career outlooks for substance abuse nurses?
Addiction nursing is a growing field because of the number of Americans who struggle with alcohol, drug, and other substance abuse.
Nationwide, the average salary for substance abuse nurses is $64,091. Some addiction nurses can earn as much as $133,000 annually depending on where they work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), demand for experienced addiction nurses is expected to grow by 6% between 2021 and 2031.
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Research revealed that social capital is the main driver in ensuring job satisfaction among addiction nurses. Working as a substance abuse nurse can be taxing emotionally and physically. Find a work culture that supports you as well as your patients.
Becoming a substance abuse nurse opens the door to other advancement opportunities in your nursing career. You can go on to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to become a nurse educator or researcher in addiction care.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek advice from other addiction nursing professionals. They can help you make the best choices for your career path.
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- Addiction Nursing Competencies: A Comprehensive Toolkit for the Addictions Nurse. journals.lww.com. Accessed June 22, 2022.
- Investigating the Feasibility of Brief Compassion Focused Therapy in Individuals in Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed June 22, 2022.
- NCLEX & Other Exams. ncsbn.org. Accessed June 22, 2022.
- Opioid Overdose Crisis. nida.nih.gov. Accessed June 22, 2022.
- Registered Nurses. bls.gov. Accessed June 22, 2022.
- Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash