Midwives turn to substance misuse to cope with stress, study finds

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Oct 29, 2021

Midwives turn to substance misuse to cope with stress, study finds

According to a survey published by Oxford University Press, more than a quarter of participants were engaging in problematic substance use

An academic from Coventry University is calling for more support for midwives, as a survey of 623 midwives found that more than a quarter of respondents were engaging in problematic substance use.

Considering the reasons why health professionals turned to substances, the survey found that problematic substance use occurred in response to work-related stress, anxiety, bullying, traumatic clinical incidents, and the ‘need to function in everyday life as a midwife’. And when it came to seeking help, just 11% of those affected had sought help, with 27% sharing that they felt that they should seek help, but had not.

What is problematic substance use?

Problematic substance use is a broad term to describe a relationship with substances – alcohol and drugs, including prescription drugs – which has become unhealthy. This may be regularly consuming more than the recommended daily limit, bingeing, or engaging with substance use to the detriment of your relationships or day-to-day life.

Considering the findings of this survey, Dr Sally Pezaro – fellow of the Royal College of Midwives and researcher in the Centre for Arts Memory and Communities (CAMC) at Coventry University – believes that the results can be used to make a positive change to the health, wellbeing, and support systems of midwives.

“This data should make people stand up and listen to the plight of midwives,” she says. “We want greater recognition of this issue and hope this data will be a catalyst for change and a reduction in stigma.

“Now that this issue has been highlighted, we would like to work with policy and decision-makers in co-creating solutions which reduce risk.”

Of course, the road to seeking help isn’t without its challenges – including the availability of resources, but also overcoming stigma and difficult cultural attitudes. In one anonymous response to the survey, an individual shared the response of their employer to a colleague’s substance problem.

They said: “Rather than helping her, she got sacked, named and shamed... This sends a very powerful message to others... We need help? We get destroyed! No wonder we soldier on in silence!”

How to talk to an employer about mental health

Taking the step to talk to an employer about mental health can feel daunting, but it could be the first step to improving your working conditions and finding a solution that works for you. Here, we share tips for speaking about mental health at work.

“Presently, many midwives engaged in problematic substance use feel unable to seek help. If we can highlight this issue and encourage a change in perceptions, stigma, policy, and the provision of support then this work will have achieved its goal in making a difference,” Dr Pezaro says. “Yet our overall aim is to give all midwives the opportunity to receive compassionate support where required, so that they may continue to deliver excellence in care every day.

“For that, we need policymakers and decision-makers to stand up and listen.”

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