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Substance misuse: ‘Doctors have a support service and so should nurses’

Congress hears of initiative to offer psychological help for nursing staff

Congress hears of initiative to offer psychological help for nursing staff


RCN congress is taking place at ACC Liverpool this week. Picture: John Houlihan

A support service is being developed to help nurses struggling with substance misuse due to stress, often caused by workload pressures and short-staffing.

The charitable initiative will provide out-of-hours psychological support from volunteer doctors and other professionals, with the aim of creating a network of help for nursing staff around the UK.

Similar scheme for doctors

The plan was revealed at RCN congress today, where members heard that talks on its development were taking place between specialist doctors based in London and the college’s former president Andrea Spyropoulos.

The idea for the free support service is based on a similar scheme for doctors and dentists, the NHS Practitioner Health Programme, which provides help for staff with mental health or addiction problems.

It is estimated that one in ten healthcare professionals experience substance misuse issues.

Fear of attention from NMC

Speaking at a congress event on psychoactive substance misuse, London forensic psychiatrist Abu Shafi said: ‘Nurses don’t go through the occupational health service because they are worried about what the NMC will do. Doctors have a support service and so should nurses.’

Dr Shafi, who is working with Ms Spyropoulos on the service’s development, told Nursing Standard that in his experience nurses struggled with substance misuse due to stress at work, unsocial hours and issues in their personal lives.

Vulnerable staff

Ms Spyropoulos said: ‘Nurses are quite neglected in terms of their personal support and they are human beings too.

‘If we recognise that doctors are vulnerable and at risk, then why not nurses? This is why we thought it would be good to set up a charity with the right support for them.’

Dr Shafi used the congress event to update members on novel psychoactive substances, and nurses shared their experiences of patient users.

He told the meeting that there were currently 1,000 novel psychoactive substances. He said reactions to misuse of substances such as Spice could often be confused with symptoms of a stroke, with users experiencing slurred speech, dribbling from the mouth and weakness down one side.

The meeting heard experiences from nurses dealing with an increase in patients who have taken drugs such as Spice, Black Mamba and other synthetic cannabinoids. Stories included:

  • A mental health ward staffed with only one registered nurse – and three healthcare assistants – caring for 20 patients on a night shift. The ward has seen an increase in women who have taken spice and are 'extremely difficult to manage', and who take nurses’ attention away from patients with schizophrenia and those experiencing disassociation.
  • Patients with learning disabilities having to be sedated after taking Spice.
  • A nurse who left her job in Dr Shafi’s team after being attacked by patients who had taken Spice. The unit is now struggling to recruit nurses.

Dr Spyropolous pledged to bring issues relating to safe staffing to the attention of RCN council.

Read the latest from RCN congress


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