Colleges Offer Recovery Programs for Students Battling Addiction | Healthiest Communities Health News

Stereotypical notions of college life – frat parties, keg stands and bong rips among them – could easily lead to a conclusion that the risk is too high in higher education for a student trying to recover from addiction. But colleges and universities across the US have been making a concerted effort for years to provide safe spaces for students in recovery.

“Historically, a lot of times, folks were told not to go back to school or that it would be a sobriety-hostile environment,” says Blake Schneider, director of the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. But “with the programs in place, a lot of times folks are told they can go back to school and they can succeed.”

More than 140 schools in the US have “collegiate recovery programs” that provide support to help students maintain their sobriety while continuing their education, to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, the country’s leading organization representing these types of programs and communities.

Typically sanctioned by the school and requiring a separate application process to join, these programs received A boost of sorts in April when the Biden administration, grappling with a continually growing epidemic drug in the US, called for expanding such efforts by 25% by 2025 as part of its National Drug Control Strategy.

The shout-out comes as many experts in the field feel the time is right for collegiate recovery programs to expand their scope, both in number and approach.

“So much evolution (in collegiate recovery programs) has already happened in the last decade and it’s so exciting,” says Kristina Canfield, executive director and member and program manager for the ARHE.

The need is real: In 2020, the percentage of people with a substance use disorder in the past year was highest among those 18 to 25 years old at 24.4%, amounting to 8.2 million people, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And while there is data pointing to a decrease in illicit drug use among pre-college adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, an analysis published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the mortality rate from drug overdoses rose by 94% between 2019 and 2020 among US teens 14 to 18 years old, likely due to an immediate and deadly drug supply.

Addiction Amid COVID-19

At the same time, concerns over spread of the coronavirus forced many college campuses to close during the early months of the pandemic. Gene Zdziarski, vice president for student affairs at DePaul University in Chicago, says students’ inability to interact with each other in person led to a drop in participants in the school’s collegiate recovery program.

“Initially it was a setback as we were trying to figure out how to get this group of students to connect and interact when they can’t meet in person and they can’t be on campus,” Zdziarski says. “And then there were still the uncertainties around Zoom and how do we make it secure.”

Over the past year, however, the number of students participating in DePaul’s program has steadily rebounded and increased: There are now 65 active participants, more than double the number that were in the program prior to the pandemic. Zdziarski attributes the bounce back to the demand for support services and an increased comfort with meeting remotely.

Research also points to encouraging results: An analysis of 2013 survey data from 29 collegiate recovery programs showed that only about 5% of participants had used alcohol or drugs in the past month, and that, on average, it had been more than 2.5 years since participants last drank alcohol and nearly three years since their last drug use.

An earlier paper reported that students affiliated with a recovery community at Texas Tech University posted an average grade-point average from 2002 to 2005 that was “consistently higher” than the overall student average at the school, though it noted that sustained periods of recovery prior to entering the program may have influenced both academic and sobriety success.

A Need for Greater Inclusion

Canfield grew familiar with collegiate recovery programs 12 years ago in 2010, when she started a program while attending graduate school at Ohio University. She’d experienced her own issue with a substance use disorder while earning her undergraduate degree, which forced her to take a year off from her studies and enter a detox facility twice.

“I think the greatest lie in American society is what we tell our youth about college,” Canfield says. “We say things like, ‘These are the greatest years of your life,’ or, ‘This is the time to experiment,’ and that somehow gets lumped in with using drugs and alcohol.”

Canfield returned to campus at age 21 for her junior year. But she remembers feeling isolated and having a hard time connecting with faculty and her peers, because it was hard for them to understand her experience.

“I very much felt like an alien – I just couldn’t imagine of there being anyone else in my community like me,” Canfield recalls. “It was really difficult to explain to my professors why I took a year off from school, or why I had failing grades on my transcripts.”

A key focus for many collegiate recovery programs over the past five years has been to create an optimal environment for students in recovery to reintegrate into campus life. That effort has included initiatives to provide ally training for non-recovery students and faculty, to help them become more cognizant of the issues students in addiction recovery face while on a college campus.

“Not only are we helping students who are seeking recovery, we are helping to create recovery-ready campuses or communities that are full of people who understand what it means to be a person in recovery,” Canfield says.

Collegiate recovery programs have been around for four or five decades, but Canfield and others say their evolution began around the mid-2000s, when Texas Tech received a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the US Department of Education to develop a model that could be replicated by other schools.

George Comiskey, associate director of external relations for the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities at Texas Tech, says when the school began offering students class credits as they worked to become state licensed in chemical dependency counseling in 1986, many of those who signed up were in recovery from substance use. A student group soon was formed to provide them support through weekly meetings.

Eventually, Comiskey says, the class and support group components came together to form the core of the university’s current program. Texas Tech holds recovery and academic support meetings each week for students with substance use and eating disorders, as well as those experiencing mental health issues. The program also offers scholarships to more than 120 students each year whose issues may have affected their grade-point averages to the point where they may have been deemed ineligible for acceptance to the university.

“I usually get at least two to three inquiries a month from people across the United States about replicating our program,” Comiskey says.

Though the makeup and the design of college recovery programs can often change from school to school, most share certain core elements. Many provide a dedicated space for students to hold support meetings, study and lounge, and have dedicated staff on hand to counsel students.

Differences found among programs can involve the scope of their approach. Some schools, like Texas Tech, are centered around abstinence-based recovery methods like 12-step programs, and are less tailored toward students participating in alternative therapeutic strategies like medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, which typically involves a medication such as buprenorphine that can curb drug cravings or block a substance’s euphoric effects.

“If you’ve got people that are your traditional 12-steppers, and they’re sitting next to somebody who’s taking a pill to stay in a good place, that’s a real challenge,” Comiskey says. “That challenges us as a community: How do we help everybody stay in a, supporting place with each other when how do we identify our recovery looks different?”

Yet Comiskey acknowledges that with students using multiple substances or suffering from co-occurring disorders like mental illness, the program has strived to become more inclusive in recent years, and says it will continue to do so. Over the past year, he says, the Texas Tech program has supported a separate student group for those in mental health recovery and substance use disorder recovery that is not abstinence-based. The goal is to integrate that group into the school’s recovery support system.

As part of its program, Kennesaw State has an alcohol and drug educator who provides recovery-informed prevention counseling for students. The program also provides support for students in recovery from an array of addiction disorders – including those centered on gambling, eating or sex – and is among those that have made strides toward encompassing students participating in both 12-step-type and MAT therapies.

“There is no right or wrong way for a human being to recover – people need to do what’s best for them,” Canfield says. “Just seeing more of the inclusivity – that’s been the big evolution, and it’s been very exciting to see that growth.”

Moving forward, Zdziarski, at DePaul, feels the level of need for addiction recovery will make providing appropriate support as much a priority for many colleges as addressing other social factors, like food in security, has become in recent years.

“Years ago, how often did we talk about housing insecurity or food insecurity among students in college? It wasn’t the typical topic, (but now) it’s pretty common,” Zdziarski says. “I think (addiction recovery) is going to be one of those similar kinds of resources and services that most institutions will provide, because it’s an important resource for this age group and people going to college.”


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