Calls for support for UK midwives struggling with substance abuse

The Royal College of Midwives is calling for members to be given the same support as doctors when they struggle with drug and alcohol problems.

Research shared with the Guardian – the first of its kind into substance abuse among midwives – has revealed that significant numbers of midwives have problems with drugs or alcohol. It found that 28% said they had problems and 16% said they worked while under the influence of various substances.

Dr Sally Pezaro, the author of the research, found that along with alcohol, midwives used cannabis, cocaine, heroin and sedatives. She said reasons given include work-related stress and anxiety, bullying, traumatic clinical incidents and to maintain overall functioning.

Pezaro, a midwife and fellow of the Royal College of Midwives, said there was no dedicated support programme available for midwives, while doctors struggling with substance abuse can get support from the NHS practitioner health programme. The incidence of substance abuse among midwives, based on the survey of 623 people, appears higher than among doctors – 8%-15% of whom have been found to have substance abuse problems.

Pezaro is calling for more support for midwives. “If midwives seek help they lose their licence to practise. Doctors are treated less harshly by their regulator, the General Medical Council, than we are by ours – the Nursing and Midwifery Council,” she said. Between 2014 and 2016 26% of 1,298 fitness to practise cases that came before the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) involved drugs or alcohol.

A Royal College of Midwives spokesperson said: “It is a brave decision to step forward and say you have a problem and are grappling with substance misuse, which blights the lives of people and their families. For anyone who does this, including healthcare professionals, there should be a compassionate approach.

“This should be matched with understanding, help and support from employers and wider society for people struggling with these serious issues, and who want to tackle their problem and overcome it. All health professionals should also receive the same treatment and support from their employer, irrespective of their role.”

One survey respondent said of a fellow midwife: “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!”

Pezaro, a researcher in the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities (CAMC) at Coventry University, wants to work with NHS and government policy decision-makers to tackle the problem.

She said barriers to seeking help included fear of repercussions, shame, stigma, practicalities, and a perceived lack of support. “This data should make people stand up and listen to the plight of midwives. We hope it will be a catalyst for change and reduce stigma. Many midwives engaged in problematic substance use feel unable to seek help.”

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