What Is a Substance Abuse Nurse?

A substance abuse nurse, sometimes referred to as an addiction nurse, specializes in the treatment of patients addicted to drugs, alcohol or other substances. Substance abuse nurses are trained in mental health in addition to general medicine. They provide pain management, education for patients and caregivers about the dangers of substance abuse, and emotional support to patients in crisis.

Becoming a Substance Abuse Nurse

As with other nursing careers, the first step in becoming a substance abuse nurse is to complete an Associate's Degree in Nursing or Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree to gain a general nursing education. For aspiring addiction nurses, elective courses in mental health will be particularly important. Once a nurse has completed schooling, they must pass the NCLEX-RN exam. From there, an RN may begin work as a substance abuse nurse. Certain employers may require that the RN gain certification as a Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN).

A typical job posting for a substance abuse nurse position would likely include the following qualifications, among others specific to the type of employer and location:

  • ADN or BSN degree and valid RN license
  • Ability to make safe judgment calls in patient care
  • Strong communication skills for educating patients and their families about the dangers of substance abuse and their treatment options
  • Proficiency in computer programs and data entry for maintaining patient records
  • Experience in mental health and/or addiction preferred
  • Caring and professional demeanor with compassion for patients struggling with addiction

To search and apply for current substance abuse nurse positions, visit our job boards.

What Are the Education Requirements for Substance Abuse Nurses?

Substance abuse nurses are generally required to have completed an ADN or BSN degree and to hold a valid RN license in the state in which they plan to practice. A higher nursing degree is usually not required unless the RN wishes to become an Advanced Practice Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN-AP), in which case a minimum of an MSN degree must be held. At any degree level, elective courses in mental health and addiction are critical for students interested in pursuing a career in substance abuse nursing.

Are Any Certifications or Credentials Needed?

Once a nurse has completed 2,000 hours of professional nursing experience in the substance abuse sector and 30 hours of continuing education related to addictions nursing within the last three years, he or she may sit for the Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN) certification exam offered by the Addictions Nursing Certification Board (ANCB).

There is also an opportunity to gain certification as an Advanced Practice Certified Addictions Registered Nurse (CARN-AP) through the ANCB. This certification requires a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) or higher, as well as 45 hours of continuing education and 1500 hours of advanced-practice addictions nursing experience (with a minimum 500 hours of supervised addictions nursing experience) within the last three years.

Both of the CARN certifications are valid for four years. While not required for all substance abuse nursing positions, the CARN certifications communicate a nurse's commitment to substance abuse nursing to prospective employers.

Where Do Substance Abuse Nurses Work?

Substance abuse nurses work with patients and their families in a variety of settings, including:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Psychiatric wards in hospitals
  • Inpatient or outpatient substance abuse treatment facilities

What Does a Substance Abuse Nurse Do?

A substance abuse nurse provides direct patient care to individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction. They assist physicians in developing treatment plans, perform patient assessments, monitor a patient's progress and administer medications and pain management services. An important aspect of substance abuse nursing is mental health and emotional support services. Substance abuse nurses often conduct mental health screenings and provide emotional support for patients and their families during treatment. They also educate patients and their loved ones about the dangers of substance abuse and provide resources and information about the various treatment options for addiction.

RELATED – What Different Settings Do Addiction Nurses Work In and What Are Their Job Duties in Each Setting?

What Are the Roles and Duties of a Substance Abuse Nurse?

  • Perform patient assessments and medical screenings at admission and monitor patient's status throughout treatment
  • Assist physicians with developing individual treatment plans and implement and monitor those plans
  • Administer medications and provide pain management services
  • Update and maintain patient's medical records and charts
  • Educate patients and their loved ones about the dangers of substance abuse and various treatment options
  • Provide emotional support to patients and their families struggling with addiction, which may include organizing and facilitating support groups

Substance Abuse Nurse Salary & Employment

Substance abuse nurses are in high demand across the country as the number of individuals suffering from substance abuse addiction rises. The median wage for registered nurses as a whole is $68,450 annually according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and nurses with specialized skills and knowledge may earn even higher incomes. Relevant certifications, such as the CARN certification, can also help nurses earn higher pay.

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