A nurse’s crusade to bring evidence-based treatment to substance use

Cheyenne Johnson never wants anyone else to graduate from nursing school as unprepared to care for patients with substance use and addiction as she was.

“My nursing education, as fantastic as it was, did not prepare me at all for the reality of the scope of substance use and addiction in the health system,” says Johnson, the co-interim executive director of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.

As a new nurse working in the emergency department and on medical floors of hospitals in British Columbia, Johnson often saw patients admitted with an arm or leg they’d broken while intoxicated.

She nursed people admitted for other alcohol-related illnesses who went into withdrawal, but who were discharged without any treatment or follow-up plan.

When Johnson approached her colleagues for guidance on medications to treat those patients’ withdrawal, she got no answers. Instead, the patients were stigmatized, avoided, and judged.

Alcohol, Johnson points out, is related to more than 200 chronic diseases, including cancers. Yet she didn’t learn that fact in nursing school. Nor was she taught to screen for alcohol or drug use, to support someone in withdrawal, or to access treatment and recovery services.

“Substance use is prevalent in every area in which nurses practise. This was a gaping hole in my knowledge,” she says.

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