Substance Use Disorders: A Curriculum Response

Marian L. Farrell, PhD, PMH-NP, BC, PMH-CNS, BC, CRNP


Online J Issues Nurs. 2020;25(1) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


In the United States, among individuals aged 12 or older, approximately 19.7 million people experienced a substance use disorder (SUD) related to use of alcohol or illicit drugs during 2017. Current curricula in nursing education lacks sufficient content and experiences to support a nursing workforce prepared to meet the needs of individuals experiencing substance use disorders. This article describes the scope of the problem, and offers one possible solution that synthesizes essential competencies developed by an expert panel blended with an integrated approach that includes a taxonomy of significant learning. We discuss the resulting framework created for change in baccalaureate nursing education about substance use disorders.


Recent national attention has focused on exploration of interventions to reduce the opioid crisis. Misuse of opioids is part of a larger, health-related problem known as substance use disorders (SUD) or, "a cluster of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological symptoms indicating that the individual continues using the substance despite significant substance-related problems" (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013, p. 483). In the United States (US), among individuals aged 12 or older, approximately 19.7 million people experienced a substance use disorder (SUD) related to the use of alcohol or illicit drugs during 2018 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2018). The number of individuals experiencing substance use disorders, specifically alcohol (14.5 million) and illicit drug use (7.5 million), creates an opportunity to investigate solutions, such as increasing the basic education of the workforce providing services to individuals who experience SUD (SAMHSA, 2018).

Preparation of the registered nurse workforce in the United States occurs at three different levels, culminating in a diploma, or an associate or baccalaureate degree. The result is variable educational preparation and clinical experiences. This article specifically focuses on the continued deficit of baccalaureate level nursing education programs to adequately prepare nurses to treat individuals experiencing SUD. A curriculum response to address this educational deficit is offered as part of the solution to increase competency for care received by individuals experiencing SUD.

Preparing a workforce capable of caring for these individuals is challenging. Nurses must have the requisite knowledge, skills, and competencies to provide care across the lifespan in a variety of settings (Rutkowski, 2018).