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A substance abuse nurse or addiction nurse is a nursing professional who provides care for patients who are struggling with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or other substances.
The rewards of this career path include the satisfaction of the positive ripple effect of someone's recovery from addiction, which can include benefits to patients' families, loved ones, and communities. With over 91,000 Americans dying of a drug overdose in 2020, and the number of naloxone prescriptions doubling between 2017 and 2018, nurses skilled in this specialty are needed to provide education, treatment, and support.
With an average annual salary of $86,000 according to Payscale as of May 2022, addiction nurses can earn a good living while playing a crucial part in the national battle against addiction.
What Does an Addiction Nurse Do?
An addiction nurse serves patients who are struggling with substance use disorders. They may work in various settings with patients across the lifespan.
Substance use disorder nurses perform initial assessments and evaluate and monitor patient progress. They also maintain accurate documentation and provide support for the emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms that are part of recovery.
An addiction nurse also looks for signs of relapse and may administer medications based on a physician's or nurse practitioner' orders.
The substance use disorder nurse offers intensive patient education. They may also educate family members and loved ones so that they can also understand the disease process and support the patient. Connecting patients with referrals and resources is important to the ongoing care of a patient attempting to recover from addiction. The nurse also collaborates with other providers, including mental health and addiction professionals, and may be responsible for organizing and/or leading patient and family support groups.
Addiction nurses may have a registered nurse (RN) license with either an associate degree or bachelor's in nursing. They might also work as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). As an APRN, they can use their broad nursing knowledge and specialized knowledge related to substance misuse/addiction and behavioral health.
Responsibilities for addiction nurses may include:
Performing initial and ongoing patient assessments Providing patient and family education and support Organizing and leading support groups Collaborating with other healthcare providers Administering medications
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Where Do Addiction Nurses Work?
Addiction nurses can serve patients in many settings. They may work in a community health center, inpatient or outpatient substance use treatment center, or mental health clinic. Private practice or an inpatient psychiatric unit are also options.
In outpatient settings, patients report for regular assessment, education, support, and administration or prescribing of medications. Inpatient settings include support groups/group therapy, patient education and support, medication administration, and collaboration with a multidisciplinary team.
Inpatient substance use treatment center
The nurse works with patients who remain in the inpatient setting for a prescribed number of days or weeks, providing support, education, and assessment on a daily basis.
Community health center
The nurse collaborates with a multidisciplinary team and serves patients who return regularly for education, support groups, medication administration, and the prescribing of medications such as naloxone.
Mental health clinic
As a member of a team, the addiction nurse may perform ongoing patient assessments, patient education, and support.
Why Become an Addiction Nurse
Working as a substance use disorder nurse can be a satisfying career path, but working with patients with addiction also presents challenges.
Advantages to Becoming an Addiction Nurse
Assisting patients with overcoming addiction
Improving the lives of patients and their families
Contributing to the society-wide treatment of substance use disorders
Working in a highly collaborative professional environment with the goal of creating positive outcomes for individuals, families, and communities
Disadvantages to Becoming an Addiction Nurse
Work-related stress of treating patients living with addiction and mental health disorders
High potential for patient relapse, and the provider's frustration and guilt when relapse occurs
Difficult to not bring work home
Potential burnout and nurse compassion fatigue
How to Become an Addiction Nurse
To become an addiction nurse, the nurse must first have a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and a valid RN license. Employers are likely to require that applicants for an addiction nurse position have work experience in mental health. Excellent communication skills, a caring personality, empathy, and emotional intelligence are an absolute must since patient education and supportive counseling are important in addiction work.
The addiction nurse must also be prepared to have firm boundaries with patients to avoid becoming overly emotionally involved or being taken advantage of by patients who have the potential to be manipulative. Computer skills are helpful since electronic medical records are used for documentation in most healthcare facilities.
The Steps to Become an Addiction Nurse
Earn a BSN or an ADN from an accredited nursing program at a university or college.
This initial step to becoming a nursing professional opens the door to many opportunities to serve as a nurse in a large number of nursing specialties.
Pass the NCLEX exam to receive an RN license.
The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is the gateway to nursing practice once a nurse has received their diploma and degree. The NCLEX is a computerized standardized exam that tests for the basic knowledge it takes to practice as a nurse.
Gain experience in mental health nursing and addiction treatment.
This step may not always be necessary to be hired as a substance use disorder nurse, but having this type of experience can make a nurse more marketable.
Consider becoming a certified addiction registered nurse (CARN).
While certification is optional, becoming a certified addiction registered nurse shows a potential employer that the nurse applicant is dedicated to learning and growing in the substance use disorder field.To become certified, a nurse must have a valid, unencumbered nursing license, a minimum of 2,000 hours of addiction nursing experience, and 30 hours of continuing education related to addiction and care for substance use disorders.
With experience, knowledge, confidence, and perhaps some expertise, a nurse interested in a position as an addiction nurse can enter the job market and find an appropriate facility and employer.
How Much Do Addiction Nurses Make?
According to Payscale in May 2022, a certified addiction registered nurse earns an average salary of $86,000 per year or $36.63 per hour. In comparison, Payscale reports that the average registered nurse earns a salary of $68,240 or $31.04 per hour, and an emergency room nurse earns an average salary of $73,000 or $32.56 per hour.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth for nurses overall to be 9% between 2020 and 2030, which is as fast as the nationwide average for all careers.
Addiction nurses can earn a competitive salary. Factors that may increase marketability and earning include certification, years of experience in mental health and substance misuse, and demonstrated expert knowledge and skill.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do addiction nurses need to be certified?
Addiction nurses do not need to be certified. In fact, to apply for certification, a nurse must first have 2,000 hours of experience in addiction and substance use disorder nursing.
Are addiction nurses in demand?
Considering the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States (91,700 Americans dying of a drug overdose in 2020 and the number of naloxone prescriptions doubling between 2017 and 2018), nurses specializing in addiction and substance use disorders will likely stay in high demand.
How do you become a substance abuse nurse practitioner?
A nurse practitioner interested in the treatment of addiction can seek a position in a facility where on-the-job training is available. Previous experience in mental health nursing can be helpful.
If a nurse practitioner would like to become a certified advanced practice addiction nurse, they must have:
- A valid license as an RN and APRN
- A minimum of a master's degree in nursing
- Forty-five hours of continuing education related to addiction
- At least 500 supervised hours of clinical practice related to addiction
- At least 1,500 hours of experience in addiction nursing as a nurse practitioner within the three years prior to application
Can addiction nurses prescribe medication?
Only APRNs can prescribe medication with either full-practice authority or limited authority depending on the state in which they practice.
Resources for Addiction Nurse
- Average registered nurse, emergency room hourly pay. (2022). Payscale
- Average registered nurse, hourly pay. (2022). Payscale
- Certified addictions registered nurse, hourly rate. (2022). Payscale
- Examination (n.d.). Addictions Nursing Certification Board
- Life-saving Naloxone from pharmacies. (2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Overdose death rates. (2022). National Institute on Drug Abuse
- Registered nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2021). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Page last reviewed May 23, 2022
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