Students can stay sober with campus recovery programs

Students can stay sober with campus recovery programs

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These programs were once rare, but the growing addiction crisis and strong advocacy have resulted in a tenfold rise in student recovery programs on campus.

Christina Farfield, a former undergraduate at Christopher Newport University in Virginia nearly two decades ago felt helpless. Christina Farfield said that she struggled with substance abuse disorder and found it difficult to stay away from drugs, especially since she lived on campus where drinking and drug use were almost synonymous with socializing.

Farfield stated that the university was not equipped to assist her with these obstacles. She was reprimanded multiple times for violating student conduct for her substance abuse and was even expelled from campus once.

She said that she can clearly recall asking for help and the people on campus not knowing what to do. “There was a very punitive approach. I felt like a liability on campus.”

So she dropped out of college in her junior year.

Not much has changed since Farfield’s time. Students with substance abuse disorders are still more likely than others to abandon college without the right support. According to a 2016 Center on Young Adult Health and Development report, students who want to stay sober or get rehabilitated should have access to on-campus resources. Off-campus resources do not address the unique challenges college students face.

The report states that college environments can present significant difficulties for students in recovery, particularly if they are dominated by drug and alcohol use. “Many young people in recovery face such difficulties and have to choose between staying in school or recovering.”

According to a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry, substance abuse has been steadily rising over the past decade. This has led to institutions responding in a variety of ways. They have put more Narcan kits on campus and hired mental health counselors that specialize in addiction recovery. A growing number of colleges have established collegiate recovery centers.

CRCs, also known as collegiate recovery communities or programs, are different from sober living residences or on-campus 12-step programs. These are excellent resources for students who struggle to overcome their substance abuse issues, regardless of whether they’re in long-term recovery or just starting out. Many offer scholarships for students in recovery and dedicated counselors as well as a calendar of sober social events. Some may have one staff member, while others might only have one. They will bring students together in a shared space and host them for meetings.

AA meeting

They are, however, a vital resource for students who struggle with substance abuse issues in a challenging setting, according to Tim Bannar of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rams in Recovery program.

He said, “We are really providing robust support to students who have a really severe disease and are in recovery from it, which is quite different from the interventions more common on college campuses, that are focused primarily on early intervention.”

Farfield has been sober for 17 years. She spent many years in recovery and has worked in the field ever since her college graduation. She eventually found her way to Ohio University where she was supported by her faculty and completed her first bachelor’s degree in college student personnel. 

Farfield stated that she believed students in recovery deserved more. She helped to establish the first collegiate recovery community at OU in 2012 as a graduate student and with the support of faculty members who shared her passion for addiction recovery.

Farfield now works to provide on-campus services for college students. She is also the Director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, an organization that acts as a hub for all collegiate recovery programs in America.

This group has seen a significant increase in the last decade, from just a few programs in 2012 to 149 this year.

These efforts have been bolstered by the increased support of the federal government. A commission on opioid addiction and drug abuse sent an open letter encouraging college and university administrators to set up CRCs under President Trump. In a report detailing his national drug-control strategy goals, President Biden demanded a 25% increase in the number of collegiate recovery programs by 2025.

Inside Higher Ed spoke to everyone involved in this article and they all agreed that although there has been some progress, there is still much stigma surrounding addiction and recovery.

Farfield stated that she is always surprised when a college administrator states something like, “We can’t open that program because we don’t want those students here” or “If we do that we’re admitting that we have a problem with drugs.” Farfield stated, “It’s been an honor to see how addiction and recovery have changed over my 12 years of working in this field. It’s becoming more common to talk about it in society and that is reflected in higher education.”

Tools to Survive the “Lion’s Den”

The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addictions and the Opioid Crisis referred to college campuses as a “lion’s den” for students who are in recovery in its 2017 open letter to universities.

The letter stated that “it is not surprising that researchers have described higher education campuses to be ‘abstinence hostile environments. Parents and teens face the difficult task of finding a college or university that won’t put their recovery at risk as more people recover in their teens.”

Bannar stated that “if you don’t have structured support then people will walk around campus thinking, ‘Oh, I’m alone in this experience.’ Collegial recovery programs are designed to help students with substance abuse disorder feel supported and connected with others.”

Bannar is a recovering person and has been an addiction counselor for many years. He was a victim of substance abuse and had to leave the University of Virginia in his senior year due to legal troubles. After getting sober, Bannar said that the only reason he was able to return to UVA and complete his degree in 2007 was because of the small, collegiate recovery community.

Farfield stated that administrators often doubt the value of a rehabilitation center due to their inability to recognize the extent of student substance abuse. A 2018 report by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration states that one in seven 18- to 25-year-olds has a substance abuse disorder. Farfield says that national research shows that that figure is closer to one of four for college students.

Farfield stated that even though the population served was much smaller, CRCs are still a vital part of the campus’s mental and physical health resources.

“It’s more than a group of students who are in recovery.” She said that “campus wellness along with an addiction recovery diet, is what we are referring to. Creating healthy campuses for students is a major focus right now. Part of that is supporting recovery.”

Spreading the Gospel

Although Texas Tech University’s collegiate recovery center was not the first in the nation, Rutgers University’s recovery programs were established in 1983. However, it is widely considered the gold standard in the field.

Collegiate Recovery Community

Established in 1986 by the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery (now the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities), Texas Tech’s program was instrumental in promoting CRCs well before the ARHE. The ARHE was actually established at the Lubbock campus of Texas Tech in 2010. Kitty Harris was the long-serving director of the CCRC. In 2004, a federal grant was awarded to enable it to replicate its model at other institutions. The Collegiate Recovery Communities Curriculum was born from that grant. Since 2005, it has been used by pioneers of other colleges and universities to create their own programs.

Scholarships for students in recovery are offered by the most well-funded colleges. Students who have recovered from substance abuse disorders can also use the dedicated residential space. The program serves hundreds of students at Texas Tech and has many dedicated staff members, including academic advisors. It is located in the middle campus in a beautiful, three-story building with its own computer lab, study spaces, as well as its own study abroad program.

Ann Casiraghi is the CCRC’s Program Director. She said that many students in recovery come from all over the country to TTU because they know they will have the support and encouragement they need. This makes it a great recruitment tool for students who aren’t well served. Many of the alumni have gone on to help start or run other collegiate recovery programs across the country.

Casiraghi is one of these alumnae. She is in long-term recovery from addiction, as are most college students. She decided to return to college in her 40s after becoming sober. A scholarship from Texas Tech’s CCRC provided her with both financial support and recovery support to finish her long-awaited degree.

Casiraghi stated that it provides students in recovery with a structure and process that allows them to create a sense of community, accountability, and identity. Every campus should have a collegiate recovery program.

It’s time to get work done

Although collegiate recovery centers have increased in number over the past few years, they remain rare at U.S. universities. This is something that students with substance abuse disorder will be aware of. A recent Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey found that students who identified as having both mental health issues and substance abuse problems were more likely to rate their institution’s counseling or support services a D or F.

Freddie Shegog would likely have given his institution a failing score as well. He had been in and out of rehab for many years while trying to get his bachelor’s degree from Delaware County Community College. Then, he was a transfer student at West Chester University. 

However, his struggle with substance abuse prevented him from being able to focus. He dropped out of college and re-enrolled six more times. He was homeless and would dumpster dive for food, inhaling expired asthma medication, during his lowest moments.

There is no collegiate recovery center in West Chester or DCCC. Shegog stated that he wouldn’t have made it without the support of a sympathetic adviser.

He said, “They didn’t have the resources to allow someone like me to succeed.” “It felt as if they didn’t see the individual as much as they saw a tuition check.”

Shegog graduated summa cum laude in West Chester after six years of sobriety. He now travels across the country to speak about his journey out of addiction and often speaks to college students in recovery programs.

Shegog, a Black man, stated that the growth of collegiate recovery programs has been largely concentrated on white institutions. Shegog also said that it is important to help college students of color who are struggling with substance dependence.

college students in recovery

“I don’t speak in the slums.” Shegog stated that “my speaking money is derived from wealthy, white schools because there’s now an opioid problem there. “Where was the energy in state schools during the crack epidemic [in the 1990s]?”

Farfield stated that although some HBCUs have set up collegiate rehabilitation centers, resources are limited at community colleges and other institutions.

If you don’t have the financial resources or a donor vested in a center’s endowment, it will be harder to provide the type of strong recovery programs (dedicated space and staff) that institutions like Texas Tech offer.

Farfield stated that “addiction doesn’t discriminate, but access to resources does. [ARHE] members are primarily located on four-year, well-funded public university campuses. I believe there are many administrators who want to support recovery at their campus but it isn’t a priority funding for them.”

State grants are a growing source of support for institutions with low funding centers. State grants have been introduced in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington, as well as a number of other states, to help institutions establish recovery programs or increase resources for students with substance abuse disorders.

Renton Technical College is one example of such an institution. RTC received a grant from the state at the end of 2021 to create a “Wellbriety Center” where students in recovery can attend sober social events and have access to a library with books about addiction. The college was also able to award scholarships worth $10,000 to students in recovery last year.

Jack Shultz is RTC’s grants director. He said that it was especially important for the community and technical colleges to provide resources for students who are pursuing a degree to improve their lives, such as homelessness, incarceration, or drug and alcohol addiction.

Noel Vest, a former inmate and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, is currently focusing on the outcomes of higher education recovery programs. Because incarceration is often accompanied by substance abuse disorder, many people who have been released from prison find it difficult to get a degree or re-enter work due to the absence of support for recovery on campus.

Vest, who is in long-term rehabilitation and works closely with Stanford’s Cardinals in Recovery program, said, “For me, returning to school was about getting on my feet again and having a career I could take care of my family with. When we think about college recovery programs, it is important to consider making them accessible and welcoming to those with incarceration histories.”