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Meeting the Challenge of Compassionate Care in Addiction Treatment


Working with patients with substance use disorders can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. This article explores why compassionate care is so important in addiction recovery, and how medical professionals can maintain their compassion when treating those with addiction disorders.

The Costs of Addiction Treatment

Historically, addiction has been viewed as a moral failing by the individual. It is now known that these problems are tied to brain disorders. While environment and behavioral issues weigh into the addict’s ability to seek and sustain treatment, the disease is actually caused by brain neurochemicals.

Yet society and the media still portray addicts by attaching stigmatized labeling that the addicted person is a criminal or weak, or somehow morally lacking in character and judgment.

The disease of addiction is rampant in the United States. Addictions to food, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and more touch the lives of virtually everyone in this country. The costs are unparalleled:

  • $590 billion each year in lost work productivity and treatment.
  • $300 billion is spent each year on reducing addictions to tobacco.
  • $78.5 billion is spent annually on reducing prescription opioid addiction.
  • More than seven million people fight an addiction disorder in the United States.

What are the costs to the caregivers themselves? The human beings that provide treatment to addicts must do so in a compassionate, humane way. It is a profession where a lack of compassion can actually affect the treatment outcome for patients. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states:

When persons with addiction are approached by providers with disdain and rejection, no matter how subtly, they may reject the care offered by these providers. In fact, negative behaviors such as these may result in a missed opportunity for the addicted person to learn about important treatments.

Yet caregivers are human and live in the same society that often portrays addicts in a negative light. One study tracked nurses’ attitudes toward addiction and found that many still struggle with negative feelings toward these patients. Organizations like The Harm Reduction Coalition suggest that healthcare providers must adopt a non-judgmental approach toward their patients when providing care.

Time interview with Dr. Gabor Mate, a leading drug addiction treatment provider in Canada suggested that humane compassion by caregivers is potentially just as important as physical treatment for these diseases.

Despite all the pressure and suffering, to see people reach out to each other like that was the most astonishing thing I saw. When someone was sick, how people gathered around and helped…There is that acceptance and community, and people need community. Especially for people who have not had emotional support, that community is very powerful.

Setting the Stage for Addiction Treatment

Nurses remain on the front lines of addiction treatment in the US. This makes it imperative that these first-line defenders remain impartial and non-judgmental while providing compassionate treatment. The counseling and teaching these caregivers can provide can help those suffering from addiction reach a state of optimum health, free from the ties of their compulsions.

Nursing professionals are mission-driven to provide medical treatment. Understanding that their attitudes directly correlate with negative patient outcomes is one of the most compelling reasons for nurses to check addiction stereotypes and judgments at the door of the facility. Nurses must focus instead on providing the compassionate caring for which they were trained.

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