Professions with High Rates of Substance Abuse

Substance Use Disorder, which is the clinical term for addiction, can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, and profession. In fact, the latest data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that 20.4 million Americans aged 12 and older had experienced a substance use disorder within the previous year, as of 2019.

While anyone can fall victim to addiction, individuals in certain professions may be at a greater risk of addiction, based upon the unique challenges that their jobs bring. The following professions are among those that may have higher rates of substance abuse.

Veterans and active duty military personnel probably come to mind first when thinking of professions at high risk of addiction, and this is not by mistake. According to recent research, around 11 percent of veterans who report to the VA for treatment meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. The stressors and trauma associated with deployment, combat, and returning to civilian life can elevate the risk of addiction for veterans. The distress of being in active combat can also increase the risk of substance abuse among active duty military members, as one study found that 91.5 percent of active duty military indicated they engaged in alcohol use; 4.9 percent reported hard drug use, and 3.7 percent stated that they used marijuana. Alcohol use was similar among active duty military and veterans returning to civilian life, but marijuana and hard drug use did increase after the transition to civilian living, according to study results.

Like active duty military and veterans, police officers and other law enforcement officers are exposed to violence and confrontation, which can lead to distress, trauma, and depression. In some cases, individuals working in the law enforcement profession may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the challenges that come with this type of career. In fact, several studies have suggested that police officers are at a higher risk of alcohol abuse when compared to those not in this line of work.

Similar to police officers, firefighters have also been found to be more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse. Firefighting involves exposure to tragic accidents, and in some cases, these professionals may witness deaths or severe injuries, and they may blame themselves if they are unable to rescue a victim from a fire. Recent research indicates that the stressors associated with firefighting increase the risk of PTSD, which can lead firefighters to use alcohol or drugs to cope. The sleep disruption associated with long firefighting shifts can increase the risk of alcohol abuse even further.

It may seem that healthcare professionals, who may be given the responsibility of providing treatment to those with addictions, would be immune to substance abuse, but the stress of working in the medical field can lead some healthcare workers to use drugs or alcohol to cope. Working in healthcare often requires long hours, and it can involve exposure to critically ill patients, both of which can create stress. These stressors can lead healthcare workers to seek out ways to self-medicate, and for some, drugs and/or alcohol may become a form of stress relief. This has become especially problematic following the COVID-19 pandemic, when frontline healthcare staff have been called upon to serve endlessly and may be suffering from trauma as a result of their first hand exposure to the realities of a pandemic.

The culture in the foodservice and hospitality industry makes workers in this field particularly vulnerable to substance abuse. Not only is there typically alcohol available on the job site, but there is also a culture that promotes getting drinks after work. The late night hours and tolerance of drug use can also lead restaurant and hospitality workers to begin abusing illegal drugs, either to stay awake or to fit in with coworkers who are experimenting with drugs.

Those in the entertainment field, such as musicians and dancers, are also susceptible to addiction because of the culture in this field. Much like restaurant and hospitality workers, those who are in the arts and entertainment industry face a culture that tolerates and even glamorizes drug and alcohol use. Drugs are often available in the late night club and party scene, and alcohol is a routine part of events in the entertainment industry, such as concerts and other live performances.

Those in the legal field, namely attorneys and lawyers, are often portrayed as being high-performing professionals who are immune to the challenges of life, but when it comes to addiction, there is a bleaker story at play. For legal professionals, work is fast-paced and often involves long hours, high stakes, and juggling the demands of appearing in court, meeting client needs, and keeping up with the tedious paperwork requirements that come with the job. All of this can lead to significant depression, anxiety, and stress. One common way to cope is through substance abuse. In fact, a recent study with attorneys found that around one-fifth of them demonstrated harmful levels of alcohol consumption.

Research has also shown that construction workers are vulnerable to substance abuse. For instance, they are more likely than the general population to abuse marijuana, cocaine, and prescription opiates. Physical labor can take a toll on the body, leading some in the construction industry to self-medicate with opiates or marijauna. Others may become injured on the job and turn to drugs for relief. The long hours and intense physical labor associated with construction can also lead some workers in this field to abuse stimulants like cocaine to remain alert and energetic.

Higher-up business executives might be at the end of the list of people you’d expect to succumb to addiction, given their high status and professional success, but they rank 7th on the list of professions most likely to engage in heavy alcohol use, and 3rd for most likely to use illegal drugs. Business executive roles are high reward, but high risk, which may lead some to soothe themselves with substances.

Rounding out the list of professions that are associated with a higher risk of substance abuse are sales jobs. Most people have probably heard of the concept of “wining and dining” potential clients, which can create a culture that accepts alcohol abuse. The lifestyle that comes with sales can also increase the risk of substance abuse. Sales professionals frequently travel away from home, living out of hotel rooms and spending their evenings going out to eat. This can entrench them in the nightlife culture that may come with drug and alcohol abuse.

If you or a loved one works in a high-risk profession and you’ve found that you are struggling to function or fulfill your duties at work or home as a result of substance abuse, it is time to reach out for help. You may feel ashamed to seek help, but the reality is that addiction can happen to anyone. While your job itself may not be causing you to abuse drugs or alcohol, you may be working in a stressful or anxiety-provoking field, and if you do not have adequate coping skills, you may turn to drugs or alcohol. An addiction treatment program can help you to develop healthier coping skills so that you do not turn to substances as a way to relieve stress or quiet anxious thoughts.

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