The School of Nursing incorporated a specialized curriculum into its degree program last year to make students aware of addiction and to address stigma surrounding the problem.

Professor Christine Mueller started the curriculum with doctoral student Dina Stewart, who will become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner upon graduation.

Stewart said addiction and substance abuse among nurses wasn’t something previously covered in her coursework.

Mueller said substance abuse has always been taught in the nursing program but only how it pertained to patients.

The curriculum is an attempt to highlight substance abuse as an issue among nurses, Mueller said.

Even though the addiction rate among nurses is on par with the general population — around 10 percent — substance abuse is often more evident and problematic given that nurses have easy access to medication, Stewart said.

“Just having that access puts them at a higher risk for developing substance abuse or misuse,” she said.

Mueller said nurses also work in a high-stress environment, which can lead to alcohol or drug abuse to cope with the stress.

“We want nursing students to be aware that this disorder is a risk for nurses [and] that they themselves can be at risk,” Mueller said.

The curriculum will teach students to identify the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and how to recognize behaviors in themselves and their colleagues, said Carol Flaten, director of pre-licensure programs for the nursing school.

It will help them understand that the earlier they seek help, the better the outcome will be, Flaten said.

Nurses need to be in a good position to provide safe care for their patients as well, she said.

Stewart said the curriculum would also cover the stigma and attitudes surrounding addiction.

Nursing is considered one of the most trusted professions in the healthcare system, Stewart said, and there are high ethical standards for nurses.

Nurses who find themselves struggling with substance abuse might not seek help because of how they will be viewed, Stewart said.

“But the truth is being addicted is a disease and it’s something that has to be identified and treated as a disease … when we think of something as a disease, then the stigma is lessened,” Mueller said.

If addiction is understood as a disease, then it will help nurses understand how to seek help and move forward rather than have it concealed, Flaten said.

The curriculum is part of the nursing program’s senior course titled “Nurse in Transition to Practice” and is intended to help prepare to join the professional world.

Mueller said the nursing school hopes to package and send the curriculum module to other Minnesota nursing  schools.