Identifying Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse

piatto di farmaci e drogaOne of my first mentors in correctional health care described prisons and jails as functioning like a city or town with many of the same characteristics as the surrounding community. I still think that is a good description. So we can expect trends identified in the larger community to eventually transcend the walls of the correctional facility in some way. One of these trends is the growing problem of prescription drug misuse and abuse.

According to a 2010 survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration more Americans over age 12 are taking prescription medications for non-medical purposes. These medications include pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, sedatives and psychotherapeutic drugs. More than half of those said that they obtained the drug from a friend or relative for no cost. More than half the teens surveyed in another study obtained prescription drugs for non-medical purposes from the family medicine cabinet (Kirchner et. al., 2014).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that visits to Emergency Rooms (ER) increased 114% from 2004 to 2011. The majority of this increase is due to misuse or abuse of pharmaceuticals. In 2011 half of the admissions to the ER were related to prescription drug misuse or abuse. Of these admissions, one third involved medications used to treat anxiety or insomnia and another third were opioid analgesics (2014).

Deaths by poisoning or drug overdose have been the leading cause of injury in the United States since 2008. Overdose deaths have increased five-fold since 1980 (Kirchner et. al., 2014). In 2010 among deaths related to overdose with prescription drugs 75 % involved opioid analgesics and 35 % involved benzodiazepines. The number of overdose deaths from opioid analgesics is now greater than those of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined (CDC 2014).

All of this is to say that detainees arriving at our jails and prisons are likely to have recently misused or abused prescription drugs. Thorough, routine and non-judgmental inquiry about recent drug use during reception health screening is essential to identify individuals who will need to be managed medically during withdrawal. These questions should solicit the name of the drug, the usual dose; the route used, frequency, date and time of the last dose. Other questions include previous withdrawal symptoms and whether hospitalization was necessary (Laffan 2013).

The characteristics of people who overdosed with prescription drugs include:

  • Middle age
  • Male
  • White, Native American or Alaska Native
  • Rural community
  • History of chronic pain
  • History of mental health disorder
  • History of substance abuse
  • Have multiple health care providers or inconsistent providers
  • Taking multiple prescriptions (DHHS, 2013).

These are not listed as a definitive means to diagnose prescription drug abuse but instead to point out how many of our inmates have these same characteristics and are at risk of adverse consequences from this behavior.

When inmates are identified who will need assistance with detoxification the nurse’s next step is to contact a provider. Monitoring and management of withdrawal from prescription drug abuse should be initiated by a provider according to protocols established by the facility medical director. Nurses should not be expected to use standing orders to initiate detoxification (NCCHC 2014). For more about drug withdrawal in the correctional setting read Chapter 5 in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order your copy directly from the publisher. Use promotional code AF1209 for $15 off and free shipping.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014) Prescription Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet. Accessed at

Kirschner, N., Ginsburg, J., Sulmasy, L. S., (2014) Prescription Drug Abuse: Executive Summary of a Policy Position from the American College of Physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine 160 (3).

Laffan, S. (2013) Alcohol and Drug Withdrawal in Schoenly, L. & Knox, C.M. (ed.) Essentials of Correctional Nursing, pp. 81- 96, (New York: Springer Publishing Company LLC).

National Commission on Correctional Health Care. (Prisons and Jails 20014). Standards for Health Services. National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Behavioral Health Coordinating Committee, Prescription Drug Abuse Subcommittee, (2013) Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse in the United States: Current Activities and Future Opportunities. Accessed at

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Assessing the Mentally Ill Patient: Part 3

Last week we had just finished an assessment of a young man with agitated, restless behavior. These are some of the key findings from our assessment of the patient:

Does not respond to questions or requests in a  coherent way.

  •  Vocalizes words but they are not logically connected to express thought.
  • Increased agitation when interviewed.
  • Appearance of visual & tactile hallucinations.

The patient is not in touch with current reality and has symptoms of abnormal cognitive status. This is the definition of psychosis. Our initial nursing diagnosis is that the patient is at risk of deterioration or injury as a result of a psychotic condition.  The first step in our plan is to place the patient in the inpatient unit, for safety, additional assessment and monitoring. See Chapter 12: Mental Health for more information about the assessment of psychosis including more detail about patients experiencing hallucinations and delusions.

Delirium is characterized by:

  •     Rapid onset or mental status that fluctuates over the course of a day and
  •     Inattention, or difficulty focusing, distractibility or inability to track what is said and
  •     Disorganized thinking, incoherence or an altered level of consciousness (hyper-alert, lethargic, stuporous). 

Another piece of advice for nurses in correctional settings is to always consider medical causes as a possible explanation for psychotic symptoms. The next step is to look at the onset of symptoms and consider whether the patient is likely to be experiencing delirium rather than a psychotic disorder.  It is important to identify delirium early because the underlying medical problem can be treated and the symptoms reversed. Key findings from our patient assessment that suggest delirium are:

  • Condition has deteriorated within the last 24 hours.
  • Not responsive to questions or requests.
  • Increased agitation and hyper-vigilant.

Medical conditions that can cause delirium include:

  • Alcohol or drug withdrawal
  • Drug abuse
  • Electrolyte or other chemical imbalance including metabolic or endocrine diseases
  • Infection
  • Poisons
  • Medications
  • Surgery
  • Other conditions that deprive the brain of oxygen and other nutrients (cardiopulmonary diseases, CNS disease)

The patient denied any history of alcohol or drug use when interviewed during receiving screening. Now that it is 72 hours later, his symptoms and their onset suggest alcohol withdrawal so we further assess the patient using the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment of Alcohol Scale, Revised (CIWA-Ar).  The results of this further evaluation lead us to conclude that this patient is in moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal.  We call the provider with our findings and request treatment orders. The focus of treatment is to prevent seizures and to address fluid and electrolyte imbalances. The plan of care also includes serial assessments to monitor the patient’s status closely and a safe environment to prevent injury.  For more information about the assessment and treatment of alcohol and drug withdrawal see Chapter 5 in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing.

Always remember that psychiatric symptoms, such as psychoses, can be caused by medical conditions.  When identified and treated these symptoms can be completely reversed.  Objective, descriptive assessment, use of standardized screening tools and attention to the possibility of both medical and psychiatric etiology contribute to accurate clinical judgments.

If you haven’t already order your copy of the Essentials of Correctional Nursing directly from the publisher at

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Assessing the Mentally Ill Patient: Part 2

In last week’s post we were preparing to assess an inmate at the county jail, who the custody staff described as “going nuts”. With an accurate assessment our goal is to seek the most appropriate and immediate help for the patient. We reviewed his record and decided that the best place to interview him at this time is the cell front.

A nursing assessment of mental health is similar to the assessment of a physical status.  It consists of asking questions of the patient about their symptom and treatment experience (subjective assessment) while at the same time observing the patient’s behavior, activity and expressions (objective assessment).  The table below lists the clinical signs and symptoms that are evaluated in a mental health assessment.  It can be used as a quick reference to make sure your assessment is comprehensive. For more detail about each of these areas see Chapter 12 of the Essentials of Correctional Nursing.

Component Areas   Assessed Method
Appearance Dress &   Hygiene Observation
Behavior Expression   & Motor Activity Observation
Speech Rate, Tone,   Manner, Content Observation
Cognition Orientation,   Memory, Attention, Insight Interview
Mood Patient’s   description of how they feel Interview
Affect Expression   of emotion Observation
Thoughts Form &   Content Interview
Perception Hallucinations Interview

We arrive on the unit and check in with the correctional officer who called with concerns about the inmate and then go see the patient. After introductions we engage the patient in purposeful conversation; asking about the time of day, his activities, and how he is feeling. We may ask him to carry out a request or recall a recent event. As our interaction takes place we are listening carefully and observing the patient’s behavior noting his cognition, emotions, their expression and thought processes. We follow up on his responses to fill in detail, provide support and offer reassurance.

Nurses make significant contribution to good patient outcomes by skilled observation.  Describing a patient’s health status, especially signs and symptoms that deviate from “normal” is much more useful in determining the plan of care than use of psychiatric terminology and diagnostic labels. In the following documentation of our patient assessment we do not use elaborate or specialized psychiatric terminology.

S:  23 yo male, first incarceration, received 72 hours ago on charge of reckless driving. On intake denies ETOH and/or drug use. No history of MH treatment. At 22:00 h officers requested help w/ inmate “going nuts”.  According to custody he has not rested or eaten over the last 24 hours.

O:    Pt. appears disheveled; not having shaven or washed hair for several weeks, observed pacing the cell. Minimal eye contact, no direct response to questioning, verbalizes random words that are not connected logically to one another.  Does not comply when directed to approach the cell front or sit on bunk. Withdraws to cell corner and random hand movements increase when spoken to. Patient appears to be rolling fingers and picking at air, this activity increases in pace and emphasis during the assessment. No self-harm behavior was observed.”

Basic survival advice for correctional nurses conducting a mental health assessment is to remember that:

1. Both mental and physical health assessments are formed by the collection of subjective and objective information.

2. The mental health assessment considers the patient’s appearance, cognition, emotion and thought processes.

3. Comprehensive, descriptive information is more valuable in determining the plan of care than use of specific psychiatric terminology or labels.

Based upon the description of the patient what is your assessment and nursing diagnosis?  What is your plan for the patient? We will pick up here on the next post.

If you haven’t already order your copy of the Essentials of Correctional Nursing directly from the publisher at

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Assessing the Mentally Ill Patient: Part 1

You are coming to the end of a busy evening shift at the county jail and receive a telephone call from custody staff about an inmate who is “going nuts.” The officer wants a nurse to come to the unit and “do something” about the inmate. The officer says that the inmate is a 23 year old male brought in on a charge of reckless driving the day before yesterday.  What are the next steps you will take as the nurse responding to this patient?

Last week’s post made a couple suggestions. The first is to take a deep breath and think about what needs to be accomplished for the patient and the best way to get there. Second, of the types of encounters in last week’s post, this is likely a patient who is acutely ill. The nursing action and goal is to carefully assess and document the patient’s health and mental health status so that the most clinically appropriate and immediately responsive plan of care is put into place.

Prepare yourself for this encounter by:

  • reviewing the patient’s record
  • identifying a safe, private place for the interview and
  • setting aside time to conduct the interview

Prepare the patient by:

  • identifying yourself
  • making it clear to the patient why the interview is taking place
  • listening carefully

Taking these steps increases the accuracy of the information obtained in the assessment which means more precise problem identification and more effective treatment.  People are sometimes reluctant to describe symptoms they are experiencing while incarcerated because of concerns about being victimized as mentally ill. Review of the record will provide information to the nurse about the potential this patient has for substance withdrawal as well as any history of mental health treatment. It may be that the safest place to conduct the assessment is at the cell front; just be aware of factors in the setting that effect the patient’s responses by inhibiting disclosure or creating confusion.

Setting aside the time, identifying yourself, and telling the patient why you are there, are all done to create a therapeutic relationship between the nurse and the patient. We all know what it feels like to interact with someone who conveys that they don’t have the time and don’t care about you or think you are lying. Taking the steps to establish a therapeutic relationship helps the nurse be mindful about the nature and purpose of the patient encounter in a very busy and sometimes stressful setting.  By listening carefully, the nurse can pick up on information that the patient is reluctant to disclose.  For example, the patient may deny mental health treatment but mentions the name of a counselor at the local community mental health clinic. This is probably an indicator that the patient has had some contact with the mental health system that could be followed up on. It helps to be familiar with the main contacts and places that provide mental health services in the community so that if the patient mentions something related to these you can pick up on it. The same is true of substance abuse services in the community.  Some communities have begun to share access to patient registries especially to reduce or eliminate discontinuity of treatment.

Do you have access to information from mental health agencies or substance abuse treatment programs that help identify patients who have been in treatment before admission to the correctional facility?  If so, please let us know if you think it has improved care of the mentally ill and if so how?

Read more about mental health in Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order your copy directly from the publisher

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CAGE for Alcohol Withdrawal


Our patients are prone to drug and alcohol misuse so correctional nurses need heightened awareness of withdrawal potential for all who enter their facilities. According to authorities, more than 65% of inmates meet criteria for drug abuse, alcohol dependence, and addiction. There are also significant concerns about deaths while in custody related to drug and alcohol withdrawal. Of the two, alcohol withdrawal has significantly higher concerns but withdrawal from opiates and depressant drugs can also cause problems.


Intake assessment of withdrawal potential is critical for good care. CAGE is a standard evaluation of alcohol intake that can quickly determine if withdrawal is likely. Two positive responses are considered a positive test and indicate further assessment is warranted.


C – Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

A – Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

G – Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

E – Eye opener: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?


Correctional nurse and chapter author Susan Laffan has a list of other questions that should be asked during intake:

  •  Do you currently use any type of alcohol or drugs?
  • If “no”: has the individual used in the past?
  • What type?
  • alcohol: beer/wine/liquor
  • drugs: illegal vs. prescription (dosage)
  • name of each drug
  • route of drug (oral/smoke/inhaled/intravenous)
  • How much/many?
  • How often?
  • Date and time last used?
  • Have you ever had withdrawal symptoms or seizures/“shakes” when alcohol/
  • drug is stopped?
  • Have you ever been hospitalized for medical treatment of withdrawal
  • symptoms?

What do you use to evaluate for alcohol withdrawal potential? Share your tips in the comments section.

Read more about withdrawal detection and management in correctional nursing practice in Chapter 5: Alcohol and Drug Withdrawal from Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order your copy directly from the publisher.