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Help a Teacher with an Alcohol Abuse Issue

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) releases periodic estimates of rates of alcohol abuse and illicit drug abuse by profession. The most recent results combined data from 2008 to 2012 and were published in 2015. Individuals in the targeted professions between the ages of 18 and 64 are surveyed, and estimates for substance abuse/substance use disorders by profession are compiled. The latest available results indicate the following:

  • Across all of the professions surveyed, an average of 8.7% of fulltime workers reported using alcohol heavily in the month prior to the survey.
  • An average of 8.6% reported using illicit drugs in the past month.
  • An average of 9.5% qualified for a diagnosis of a substance use disorder (either an alcohol use disorder or some other substance use disorder).
  • Individuals in the education industry had a 4.7% prevalence of past-month heavy alcohol use, the second lowest rate of all profession surveyed.
  • Individuals in the education industry had a 4.8% rate of past-month illicit drug use, the second lowest rate of all professions surveyed.
  • Individuals in the education industry had a 5.5% rate of formal substance use disorders, the lowest rate of all the professions surveyed.

The good news is that based on the empirical evidence, it can be surmised that educators have relatively low rates of substance abuse and substance use disorders compared to other industries. The bad news is that those teachers who are struggling with substance abuse may feel stigmatized if they seek formal treatment for their issues and if it is discovered that they are being treated for a substance use disorder, such as an alcohol use disorder.

Treatment for Teachers

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a comprehensive treatment program for an alcohol use disorder should include certain components.

  • A formal assessment should be done, to determine the severity of the individual’s substance abuse and to identify all of their needs/issues.
  • The assessment should be used to develop a formal treatment program that contains empirically validated elements of alcohol use disorder treatment that are individualized for the needs of the person.
  • The treatment program should be sensitive to the individual’s social and cultural needs.
  • A program of withdrawal management (medical detox) for alcohol or drugs should be utilized if it is deemed necessary.
  • Medically assisted treatment, such as medications, should be used when deemed appropriate.
  • Substance use disorder therapy is the key component of a recovery program.
  • Participation in social support groups can boost recovery success.
  • Treatment should combine education about substance abuse and formal interventions in order to be successful.

In the end, the decision to enter treatment is made by the individual with the substance abuse issue. Substance use disorder interventions are often performed by friends, coworkers, and relatives who are able to place stipulations or consequences on the person for not entering treatment.

Unless a teacher has severely violated the stipulations of their contract (such as coming into work intoxicated) or acted in an unethical manner (such as providing drugs or alcohol to children, using drugs or alcohol on the job, etc.), it is unlikely that they can be threatened with loss of their job. However, supervisors and unions can certainly place stipulations on a teacher with a moderate to severe substance use disorder that can force them into treatment if they refuse to get help. Fortunately, NIDA reports that empirical research indicates that there is little difference in treatment outcomes between individuals who are forced into treatment recovery programs by employers or the legal system, and individuals who voluntarily enter treatment programs for alcohol abuse and other substance use disorders.

It is important not to enable the individual by making idle threats and causing them to become defensive. Instead, the consequences that are imposed on an individual for not entering treatment should be realistic and threatening enough to motivate the individual to enroll in a professional recovery program.

The Main Reasons Teachers Might Turn to Substance Abuse

According to an article published in 2015 in Educational News, there are several hypotheses that might explain why some teachers turn to substance abuse and specifically alcohol abuse.

The first hypothesis is that teachers may turn to substance abuse to reduce stress, a common reason for people using drugs or alcohol across all professions. The article singles out reasons that female teachers may become stressed and abuse substances but does not offer specific reasons why male teachers may abuse substances. The empirical data provided by SAMHSA suggests that males in the education profession are more likely to use alcohol or illicit drugs than females. However, the use of alcohol or drugs to reduce perceived stress is very common for all occupations, and it can be hypothesized that stress reduction may be an initial reason why educators begin using and then abusing alcohol or drugs. Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it can reduce issues associated with perceived stress in the short-term; however, its continued use and eventual abuse actually complicate these issues over the long-term.

The second hypothesis offered by the article is that educators may use substances as mood enhancers. A 2014 article in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology estimated the prevalence of depression across numerous occupations. The average of depression over all occupations was about 10%, with the range over all occupations being 8%-16%. The prevalence of depression that occurred in the education industry was estimated at about 10%, consistent with the overall average.

Thus, teachers as a group are probably no more likely to become depressed than individuals in other occupations; however, teaching can become monotonous for individuals, and when combined with the stress associated with working with younger individuals, this might trigger substance abuse in some teachers, particularly the abuse of alcohol because alcohol use is socially accepted. Teachers would be expected to be less likely to abuse illicit drugs in this situation. They may attempt to maintain the perception among their peers that their use of alcohol is simply for social purposes.

The final reason offered by the article is that teachers might turn to the abuse of drugs or alcohol to deal with sleep issues. There is no solid data regarding the prevalence of sleep disorders among teachers, and it would be expected that teachers are no more likely to suffer from sleep disorders than individuals in the general population. Issues with insomnia could also be related to the other aforementioned factors, such as heightened levels of perceived stress and depression. This could lead to some teachers excessively using alcohol in order to help them initiate sleep. However, alcohol abuse often interferes with sleep because it disrupts REM sleep. Over the long run, the use of alcohol to help one sleep would exacerbate the issue.

Information on Other Professions

Teachers Are Often Placed on a Pedestal

Educators are often victims of the halo effect, a phenomenon that occurs when people tend to look at a person or group of people who have some desirable quality and then make a broad generalization about the person that is positive in all areas. Teachers are often viewed as intelligent, social, and selfless.  It becomes very easy for others to assume that teachers are nearly faultless in other areas of their lives. This situation can result in teachers who have turned to the use of alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, depression, or other issues being hesitant to seek help as they begin to believe that they should be perfect as a result of the perceived expectations of others.

Fortunately, teachers have very strong unions that go to great lengths to protect their privacy and personal rights. A teacher who has a diagnosable substance use disorder, such as an alcohol use disorder, would most likely receive protection from their union regarding job security and privacy unless they were involved in some extreme behavior, a major ethical violation, or had significant legal issues as a result of their alcohol abuse.

How to Break the Stigma

There is no magical solution to breaking the stigma associated with substance abuse. Seeking treatment, admitting that one needs help, and having a commitment to changing one’s behavior are the most positive ways to deal with the stigma associated with having an alcohol use disorder. People appreciate honesty and a commitment to change in such a situation.

In general, there are several steps that help individuals break the stigma of their substance use issue and seek help.

  1. Understand the signs of substance use disorders. Whenever an individual’s use of drugs or alcohol results in distress or dysfunction in life, they most likely have a substance abuse issue. This means that the individual might miss work as a result of their substance use, has a decline in work-related performance associated with their substance use, has tension in their personal relationships as a result of their substance use, fails to fulfill important personal obligations as a result of their substance use, has issues controlling their use of the substance, or develops signs of physical dependence on drugs or alcohol. Any one of these signs should be a red flag to signal that there is a potential problem with use of alcohol (or other drugs).
  2. Take action. If the person’s family members or friends notice these signs, and the person is not open to the notion of treatment, they should contact a mental health professional or interventionist, and perform a substance use disorder intervention to make the person aware of their issues with alcohol abuse, how it affects others, and their need for treatment.
  3. Enroll in treatment and remain in a program for a sufficient length of time. This typically means being involved in treatment-related activities for a minimum period of 5-7 years after the individual has stopped using drugs or alcohol, and remaining abstinent during this time period. Taking a leave of absence from one’s profession in the initial stages of recovery is dependent on the severity of the alcohol use disorder. Some teachers may need to take a leave of absence from work in the early stages of recovery, whereas others may not. Those who find they require inpatient treatment to deal with alcohol withdrawal or some other issue should not take this as a sign of failure, but instead as a show of strength and commitment to self-improvement.
  4. Support the teacher while they are in treatment for alcohol abuse. The teacher should receive support from peers, union members, family, and friends. These individuals should follow the person’s treatment progress and help them to maintain a successful recovery program.