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What if students have gone through treatment for alcohol addiction or drug abuse, and now they’re back on track, focusing on their education and future? Their success in school depends on managing their sobriety. But being a student comes with stress, academic challenges, and exposure to alcohol or drugs—factors that can raise the risk of relapsing, studies show. Increasingly, substance dependency (or addiction) is understood as a chronic condition that requires ongoing management. For sober students, this is the dilemma: How can they steer clear of those triggers and manage their addiction while also having a fulfilling experience?

Students are joining recovery programs on campusClose up of hands

Increasingly, students who are “in recovery”—working to maintain their sobriety—are finding the solution in dedicated recovery programs on campuses. These programs vary, but may include drug-free housing, sober hangout space, social events with supportive peers, and meetings, counseling, and academic supports tailored to address the pressures and triggers associated with staying free of alcohol and/or drugs.

More than 170 university campuses now offer some level of recovery programming, according to Transforming Youth Recovery, a nonprofit that provides schools with funding and other resources for this purpose. The organization has a pilot project underway to expand capacity for recovery services at 100 community colleges.

“People are starting to know there is recovery support on college campuses and are looking around for it,” says John Ruyak, an alcohol, drug, and recovery specialist at Oregon State University. In a 2016 study involving nearly 500 students at 29 campus recovery programs, one in three said they would not be in college were it not for that program (Journal of American College Health).

Shifting medical and societal attitudes toward addiction appear to be helping. “There’s a trend to recognize dependency/addiction as a chronic illness, like diabetes or Crohn’s disease,” says Dr. Davis Smith, a staff physician at the University of Connecticut Student Health Center, and medical director of Student Health 101. “Like those physical conditions, substance dependency behaves differently in different individuals, is not a marker of physical or spiritual weakness, and requires ongoing attention/treatment to manage it.”

This increasingly empathic understanding of drug dependency makes it easier for people to seek the resources that could help them. “Students have changed enough that they are not so worried about anonymity as they are about finding the support,” says Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, former senior director of BACCHUS initiatives and training at NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), a leader in peer-education initiatives addressing alcohol use at US colleges.

It also helps that students in recovery are not the only ones who are avoiding alcohol and drugs. “The data on student alcohol and other drug use makes it clear that while many students do use at some level, more and more are abstaining for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Beth DeRicco, director of higher education outreach for Caron Treatment Centers, who has extensive experience developing policies and programs that address dangerous drinking and drug use on campuses and in our broader communities. Among more than 29,000 US students who responded to a national, anonymous survey, 20 percent reported that they had never drunk alcohol, and 16 percent said they had drunk alcohol but not in the past 30 days (National College Health Assessment, spring 2016).

Campus recovery programs help students succeed and graduateTeacher and student at computer

Early research suggests that these programs can help students succeed academically and graduate from college. A 2014 study involving 29 collegiate recovery communities found that their students had higher GPAs and graduation rates than the general student populations at the same colleges (Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions).

That success reflects the determination of these students to move forward, says Joan Masters, senior coordinator at Partners in Prevention, a consortium addressing substance abuse on Missouri campuses. “Students in recovery take every choice seriously and day-by-day. Going back into higher education is a commitment, their second chance.” The relapse rates of students in these programs appears to be well below those of adults accessing community-based recovery services, according to the same 2014 study.

Peer support is key to recovery

Recovery supports work better when they are designed to meet the needs associated with specific life stages and environments, research shows (SAMHSA, 2009). “For most students in recovery, collegiate recovery programs provide the social support and peer network critical to maintaining recovery,” says Dr. DeRicco.

The key components of campus programs may be peer-based groups, 12-step recovery supports, and academic supports, according to a 2011 study in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. College administrations are well positioned to facilitate these.

Part of the solution is as simple as physical infrastructure. “Universities can help facilitate students getting together and supporting themselves and each other; having dedicated space makes that easier,” says Ruyak. Early class registration means students don’t have to choose between accessing recovery supports and meeting their academic requirements, he says. “Students need to put their recovery first. If you don’t, it’s hard to be the best student you can be.”

What does campus recovery programming look like?Group of happy students

Collegiate recovery communities vary widely, both in the types of services available and in what they require of the students who access them. “There are many models of different types,” says Masters. “In Missouri, we allow each college to pick what works for them while maintaining fidelity to various tenets of recovery.”

Campus recovery programs typically include some (but not necessarily all) of the following elements:

  • Meetings on campus; meetings typically emphasize peer support. These can take various formats, such as the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the coping strategies emphasized in SMART Recovery, or the Christian fellowship of Celebrate Recovery (see Find out more today).
  • Sober or drug-free housing, such as a residential hall restricted to students who don’t use
  • Academic support, such as priority registration to help students organize their class schedule around their recovery programming
  • Individual or group counseling to address recovery-related issues, such as relapse prevention and coping strategies
  • Sober leisure activities and social events
  • Dedicated staff with expertise in recovery
  • Financial support, such as scholarship and grant opportunities
  • Classes dedicated to addiction recovery

Programs may specify a particular recovery approach or allow students to choose what works for them. For example, at Oregon State University, “We want students to choose their path of recovery. We don’t define what that looks like as long as it is positive for the community and they are not using,” says Ruyak. 

The average age of students in college recovery programs is 26, according to the Journal of American College Health (2016)—a number that hints at the nontraditional routes of many students in recovery (as explained below). “In our program, they’re from age 19 into their 40s, ranging from people who are literally just getting sober to people with nine years of sobriety,” says Sarah Nerad, program manager of the collegiate recovery community at The Ohio State University.

The campus recovery population may include:

  • Students who got sober or stopped using in high school; some take a gap year before going to college
  • Students who took time out of college in order to access alcohol and/or drug treatment, and returned to college once their recovery was on track
  • Students who did not go to college after graduating from high school, but instead worked, had children, became sober, and returned to education in their 30s, 40s, or 50s
  • Students who got sober in college (e.g., accessing outpatient alcohol and/or drug treatment)

Many recovery communities are open to others, including:

  • Students who are not in recovery but are sober and/or don’t use drugs; e.g., because of their religious beliefs or a family history of addiction
  • Students in recovery who are sober and do not need major supports
  • Students who are taking a break from drinking or substance use as a lifestyle choice or who are considering getting sober
  • Students who are not sober but are allies to their sober peers

If you’re already in college, ask about recovery services at your disability services office, counseling center, or student health center. If you’re not in school or are considering a transfer, check college websites and/or contact their student health centers. The membership requirements for recovery programs are variable. “There are many campus programs and policies that support substance-free living, and students in recovery benefit from these as does the general population of students,” says Dr. DeRicco. “If you have taken time out for substance use treatment and are looking to return to school, factors that improve your chance of success include the presence of a campus recovery program, psychoeducational programming (e.g., handling stress and triggers), and access to group meetings.”

Some elements of programming (e.g., sober housing and early class registration) may be restricted to students who meet specific membership requirements. Other elements (e.g., sober meeting space and social events) may be open to students who are not members of the recovery program but can benefit from those resources and/or support students in recovery.

To be admitted to recovery programming, staff may consider:

  • Your treatment history
  • Your duration of abstinence/sobriety before you start the program
  • Your enrollment status (e.g., a minimum number of credit hours)

The program may require:

  • Your regular participation in a specified program (e.g., 12-step meetings) or a program of your choice that supports recovery
  • A signed sobriety contract (sobriety may be defined in various ways)
  • Your agreement to drug testing
  • Costs or fees for some services

Supportive peers are highly valuable to recovery. If you are new to recovery and want to start a group on campus, reach out to other students who have more experience. “When you have a year or two of recovery under your belt, a leadership role comes more naturally,” says Nerad.

  • Contact your college administrators: Start with health educators, the disability services office, the counseling center, and the dean of student life or residence life. “Students in recovery [may be] an anonymous population. Help your college know that this community exists.” says Masters.
  • Reach out to likely allies: Talk with faculty and students in departments and programs that prioritize community service and can help you strategize and organize (e.g., social work, psychology, sociology, and counseling). Be sure to involve your disability services staff on campus; they are well positioned to support students in recovery.
  • Organize a Meet & Greet: When you have gathered a core group of students and allies, help other students connect with their peers in recovery. Talk with your staff and faculty allies about what space will work for a meeting and how to offer free pizza. Promote the event around campus. Invite student government representatives to show their support.
  • Locate space for meetings and support groups: Liaise with administrators, health educators, and counseling staff about access to meeting space and other resources, such as free photocopying and coffee.
  • Form a student organization: Reach out to your student government to learn the process and protocol.
  • Look for community-based allies: Check out meetings run by AA, NA, or other organizations including local rehab centers. “From doing a bit of networking in that community you will be able to find other local resources to help you start programs on campus,” says a fourth-year student at Ashford University (online). 

What if starting a campus-based group is not an option?

This may be an issue on small campuses where there are not enough students in recovery to maintain an ongoing group. “You can find a lot of the same benefits in traditional models of recovery.  There are 12-step meetings and counseling opportunities everywhere, and those can work as a starting point to build the fellowship that comes out of a campus org,” says a fourth-year undergraduate member of a campus recovery program at a midwestern university.

It’s not necessarily easy to know if your own alcohol and/or drug use has become problematic. If alcohol and/or drugs are negatively affecting your life, or you’re having trouble moderating your use, it’s important to seek help earlier rather than later. “People in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s say, ‘I wish I’d got sober in college’,” says Nerad. Under diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), addiction or dependency (termed substance use disorder), can be mild, moderate, severe, or in remission.

Six percent of the US student population meets the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependency, according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (2002). For some students, risk-taking is a developmental stage that they outgrow. Others may be self-medicating in response to an underlying emotional and/or physical health issue that isn’t being addressed in healthier ways.

When students seek help managing their alcohol or drug use, it’s usually in response to an alarming experience. “They woke up one day and realized their situation was not good; they got black-out drunk, they need help,” says Nerad. “They go to the student health center, counseling center, or health educator. Some students look up AA.” Many colleges have online screening tools for identifying risky substance use and assessing the need for further support, and brief interventions that can help students manage their use and avoid further negative consequences.

These questions can help you figure out if your drinking or drug use is problematic:

  • When you start drinking and/or using, are you able to stop before you start to experience negative consequences?
  • Are you able to set rules for your drinking or use and comply with them? For example: using only marijuana, not other drugs; drinking only on weekends.
  • Is your drinking or drug use having a negative impact on your life? For example: declining grades; friends losing patience with you; legal or disciplinary consequences; spending more money than you can afford on alcohol or drugs; life starting to feel unmanageable.

11 criteria that indicate problematic use (VeryWell.com)

Treatment for alcohol and/or drug misuse can take a variety of forms

“Depending on the level of care needed, a young person may or may not need to take a medical leave from campus,” says Dr. DeRicco. She outlines these treatment options:

  • Depending on the campus location, off-campus services in conjunction with on-campus supports may be sufficient.  When it is clinically appropriate, combining academics with treatment, and/or having academic goals imbedded in a treatment plan, can provide important motivation for success.
  • For many, medically assisted treatment is critical. Inpatient, outpatient, or residential treatment may be indicated and may require time out from academic life. 
  • A few campuses (e.g., Augsburg College, Minnesota, and Texas Tech University) are associated with therapeutic treatment communities. Far more commonly, a collegiate recovery program or collegiate recovery community supports students before or after treatment. 

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