“It’s not stress that kills us; it’s our reaction to it.”
– Hans Selye, Nobel Prize-nominated endocrinologist, coined the physiological term “stress”
On February 29, 2020, the first COVID-19 death was reported in the U.S. In the nine weeks since that date, the coronavirus has caused more than 68,000 deaths with over 1.17 million confirmed cases across the country. In addition, the current pandemic has pushed the physical and psychological limits of dedicated healthcare workers nationwide—especially the more than 1 million physicians and 4.8 million nurses—adding to the demands of their already challenging jobs.
Given there is ample research indicating highly stressful situations and chronic stress increase a person’s vulnerability to addiction, it would not be surprising to find—once the COVID-19 pandemic is “over” and reliable data can be collected—increased levels of alcohol and/or drug abuse among doctors and nurses during the period they’ve been addressing the effects of the coronavirus in their patients.
Now, I am not some layperson-in-lockdown speculating for the sake of keeping my mind occupied. I am a recovering addict with 22-plus years “clean,” my younger sister (aged 61) just last week successfully made her way through 16 days of having COVID-19, and I’m deeply grateful to the doctors and nurses who assisted her through her recovery (just as I’m forever grateful to those who helped me recover from addiction and continue to support me in my daily program of recovery).
My point is, I can imagine—based on my own experience of stress as a trigger to my having used alcohol and drugs to “relieve my anxiety and pain”—both physicians and nurses, in countless numbers all over America, not necessarily knowing how to properly manage the severe stress they’re constantly under, due to the COVID-19 challenges they face at hospitals and medical centers. Turning to the ubiquitous bottle of alcohol or taking advantage of their access to prescription drugs to temporarily alleviate or ease the stress in their bodies and minds would seem to be a “quick fix” they could be tempted to choose. And since both alcohol and so many prescription drugs (especially opiates and other painkillers) are powerful and “habit-forming”/addictive, I could easily see how quickly a front line doctor or nurse might slide into dependence on alcohol or drugs to “get by” in these unusually stressful times.
Therefore, it seems not only reasonable, but essential to our success in addressing this pandemic—health-wise, as a nation—to take whatever measures are appropriate to increase the access to treatment for doctors and nurses seeking recovery from alcohol or drug abuse.
According to studies, approximately 10% of all doctors and nurses either currently have or have gone through a substance abuse disorder (dependence on alcohol or drugs) during their careers. And that percentage does not take into account the unprecedented stress levels associated with this COVID-19 pandemic (which, very likely, would increase those numbers).
In order to provide the necessary treatment for any doctor or nurse seeking recovery from addiction—in the midst of this ongoing coronavirus pandemic—our city, county, state and federal governments must recognize the necessity of having and making available more professional addiction treatment programs for physicians and nurses, i.e., on a more widespread basis.
Although I am not a politician or policymaker, I am a concerned, voting citizen. What I’m proposing is likely not “rocket science.” It will, however, require those with sufficient vision and political influence to use their governmental position and power to lay out plans and take action to begin creating more opportunities for addiction treatment which begins with increased support of existing treatment centers—for any doctor or nurse currently seeking help with a substance abuse disorder.
I pray this proposal reaches the eyes and touches the heart of anyone in such a position. If given an opportunity to do so, I will vote for such a proposal and will vote for any political leader who supports the aforementioned proposal. So many lives are now at stake; and this proposal could, I believe, via the ripple effect, save not just the lives of doctors and nurses caught in the vicious cycle of addiction, but also the countless lives they touch daily.
 Baldisseri, M.R. (2013). Impaired healthcare professional. Critical Care Medicine, 35(2 Suppl), S106-S116; https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sure-recovery/201803/nurses-addicted-drugs