Approximately six years ago at the University of Vermont, a colleague from counseling and psychiatry services approached me with a problem to which he hoped we could strategize some solutions. My role at the time was the director of health promotion services, but he came to me as a person who’d worked in the recovery field since the early 1990s. He told a story about a student he was working with who had a history of alcohol and other drug abuse who was really trying to get clean and sober. He explained the challenges this student experienced living in the residence hall, his attempts at a better housing situation, and his struggle to find a social life that fit with a recovering identity amongst a population that either overindulged, or had never indulged—and not finding a place in either. He described the impact on the student’s grades, his social life, his relationships, and his mental health. He verbally illustrated the difficulties of most students who attempt to get sober without a community to support them. He finished his story by sharing that although he was telling the story of just one student, he’d actually struggled with this same situation with many students he’d been working with over the past few years.
At first glance, a college campus is a challenging place to be in recovery. Upon more critical review, a college campus may be one of the most difficult places to try to live the life of a young person in recovery. Consider the daily life of a college student. On a typical day, a student wakes and does what we all do; we yawn, we stretch, and we head to the bathroom. However mundane this seems for most, for a college student attempting recovery, this could be a mission of terrors. Lurking outside their door they may encounter an Animal House-like scene—beer cans and solo cups littered about and overflowing the recycling bins, pools of spilled beverages or the stench of alcohol-soaked carpet, and if it was a particularly bad morning, a trail of vomit leading to the restroom. For most students, this is either mildly annoying or a reminder of the night before. For a student in recovery, they’ve been triggered before they’ve even brushed their teeth.
Moving forward through the day, our recovering student continues to be reminded of how he is different, and how he is limited in his college experience. He avoids the dining halls looking to dodge dealing with the obvious hangovers and stories of the night before. Fearful that the bus will trap him amongst more war stories and plans for weekend ragers by his peers, he walks alone. He attends his classes, listening as professors share their opinions about the legalization of drugs, opine about the penal system’s place in addressing the sales of narcotics, and use drug-based analogies for economics examples without realizing the assumptions they’ve made about their students’ experiences. After a long day of frustration, he walks back to his room. As he does, he sees and smells students quietly smoking weed amongst the trees off the more beaten path. He is worrying about his sobriety. It’s Friday night, he has no plans, and no one with whom to spend his time.
Finding alternatives to the partying lifestyle is one of the most obvious, as well as greatest challenges for students in recovery, but there are many more. Students in early recovery report some of the issues they struggle with most as they navigate college life.
Having a Social Life
For a young person in recovery, having a social life in college is tremendously challenging. Socializing the way they once did is off-limits, so they are on their own to find new ways to meet these needs. However, they often don’t even have a good grasp on what those needs are. As people who may have been using alcohol and other drugs to facilitate socialization since their early teens, they haven’t yet developed an understanding of their social needs. Furthermore, after using to the point of addiction, many students describe an overall feeling of numbness where they don’t really know what they enjoy or whether they’re having fun. Nothing really compares to the extreme highs and lows of addiction, and with their brains and bodies detoxing in so many ways, real life can initially feel rather flat.
When these students were using, everything was a party (or looking for one), so figuring out what to do instead requires effort, strategy, creativity, and a willingness to stick with it even if it’s not terribly rewarding at first. While college campuses generally offer many sober activities and programs, participation can still be risky for college students in many ways. Despite it being a sober event, invariably, some students choose to participate while under-the-influence or even using at the event. This can be triggering for students in recovery. On the other end of the spectrum, “normies” or students who do not have a problem with alcohol or other drugs will be at the event, having a wonderful time without any thoughts of alcohol or other drugs. This can be triggering to recovering students as it contributes to a feeling of difference and “only-ness.” Consequently, recovering students often learn that general campus activities don’t work for them. This can reinforce their feeling of only-ness can lead to further isolation, anxiety, and depression.
Having a Community and Connection
Closely connected to having a social life is the need for community and connection. We know that developmentally the need for a peer group is extremely important at this age. For this particular group it may be even more so due to substance-abuse-related, social-emotional developmental delays. As described above, feelings of isolation can be a consequence of recovery on a college campus. The need to develop a community and a sense of connection with others is paramount to recovery, yet quite challenging. Without an institutionally sanctioned recovery program, students are on their own to find other students who may share the recovering identity. Unlike joining a club like ski and snowboard or hiking and biking, the recovering identity isn’t necessarily the identity that’s going to offer an immediate group of peers through which to find community and connection.
Resistance to Seeing Addiction and Recovery as a Possible Reality
Unfortunately, “recovery” may not even be an accessible term or identity for students. Our society struggles to see a college student as an alcohol or drug addict, so identifying them as in recovery is even more difficult. We seem to be more comfortable with the stereotypes of the alcoholic or addict: the grizzled old man under the bridge, drinking from his paper-bag-cloaked bottle of whiskey, or the scrawny, track-marked prostitute willing to exchange sex for drugs. It’s hard for most people to see our college students as fitting this identity. Students, as well as their parents, want to be “normal.” When we have resistance to identifying it, we struggle to help students with acceptance, taking action, and moving forward.
There are many other reasons being in recovery is challenging for college student, but will take a moment to just name a few. Pharmaceuticals exist in much higher numbers and are consequently more available than ever before. There is also often a misconception that because they are manufactured and legal, they are much safer to use/abuse than street drugs. Pharmaceutical medications are abused in quantity, route of admission, and through the normalization of medicating, often “friend-prescribed,” such as “You’re stressed out? Here, take a diazepam. I swiped them from my Mom’s medicine cabinet.” This reality is compounded by how often alcohol and other drug use can feel normalized on a college campus. It is often believed by people in recovery, as well as people who choose not to use for other reasons, that they are literally the only ones on campus not using. This can create an internalized peer pressure to use, as well as reinforce that “only” feeling that leads to isolation and often relapse.
So, what’s the answer? Some young people in recovery have opted for a commuter or community college experience so as to prioritize their recovery without sacrificing their education. Others have opted out of college, or white-knuckled their way through.
Fast forward to 2014. The University of Vermont is one of approximately forty colleges and universities across the nation that has an established Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP). A CRP is a supportive environment within the campus culture that reinforces the decision to disengage from addictive behavior. It is designed to provide an educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other. Each CRP is specifically designed to fit the culture of its campus, but they all share some very definitive features.
Collegiate Recovery Programs offer a safe haven to students in recovery from alcohol and other drug by providing a community of peers, a committed space, dedicated staff, funding for programs and community building, and a forum for understanding the challenges of being in recovery in college. Most Collegiate Recovery Programs have a minimum sobriety requirement, as well as a variety of required and optional activities connected to the community. Many offer a housing option for students who wish to live on campus with others in recovery. Programs range in size from ten to one hundred students, but they are all dedicated to the same mission: to create a safe space for students in recovery to find community and connection in this shared identity, so that they are better able to pursue higher education in an environment that can be counter to a more typical college culture.
Young people enter college with a lot on their plates and on their minds. Financial worries, roommate struggles, and academic challenges are just the tip of the iceberg. Students are now coming to college with a myriad of mental health and addiction concerns. All of these students deserve support and a real shot at higher education. Collegiate Recovery Programs are offering that opportunity to more students than ever before.
So let’s revisit our sober college student and his daily experience. He is now living either in an official sober house the college/university sponsors, or with other sober friends he met through the Collegiate Recovery Program. He is working an active program of recovery. He has relationships with others on campus and has people he can talk to about feeling triggered by his college experience. He has programs, events, and peers that affirm his recovering identity and offer alternatives to a “partying” college experience. He is committed to his recovery, utilizing the resources available through the Collegiate Recovery Program, and has the support of a whole crew of students doing the same work he is. His outlook on his academic future, as well as his recovery, is positive and growing stronger every day.
Real life recovering students report the following about their Collegiate Recovery Program experience:
- “The CRP has significantly broadened my recovery community on campus and provided me with amazing support that has gotten me through a difficult time being a college student in recovery.”
- “Without UVM’s CRP I would have definitely felt more closed off and isolated. This community has provided me with a safe space to come and connect with other students in my community.”
- “The Tuesday lunches are always a highlight for my week! I always look forward to eating and hanging out with my friends who truly can relate to my experiences.”
- “The CRP has helped me to make sober connections at UVM and in Burlington, which have allowed me to find people going through similar situations as myself.”
- “If I didn’t have the CRP, I would not have made useful sober connections and friends to relate to and discuss any problems I might be having.”
In addition to the forty thriving Collegiate Recovery Programs nationwide, there are approximately twenty newer programs that are striving to develop a community for recovering students on their campuses, and another twenty campuses that are gathering information to develop a Collegiate Recovery Program at their college or university.
Resources for the Counselor
If you are thinking of starting a Collegiate Recovery Program, are interested in getting involved in this movement or are just looking to find an active CRP near you for your clients, there are several resources available to help. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s mission is “To change the trajectory of recovering students lives” by bringing recovery to higher education. They are available as consultants and general resources for start up and maintenance of Collegiate Recovery Programs. Visit them at http://collegiaterecovery.org.
The Association of Recovery Schools
is a resource for recovering high schools. Their mission is “to support and inspire recovery high schools for optimum performance, empowering hope and access to every student in recovery.”
The Stacie Mathewson Foundation
creates and brings together innovative and sustainable scholastic recovery communities. Their vision is “to transform youth recovery—one community, one school, one student at a time.”
Finally, the online magazine, Recovery Campus
, serves the young adult population and raises the awareness of the growing number of Collegiate Recovery Programs across the country.