Colleges work to support students in recovery from substance abuse

Colleges and universities are taking steps to support students struggling with substance abuse problems, offering peer-driven collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) that allow students to continue their recovery process alongside their studies. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education counts at least 156 U.S. institutions among its members with CRPs, and there may be many more recovery programs beyond its purview.

However, many students in need of CRPs may not know these services exist, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. In a fall 2021 survey from the American College Health Association, 1.6% of students reported being in recovery for substance abuse, and 1.1% were diagnosed with an alcohol or drug addiction. Yet, in most cases, students’ addictions are known to their institutions only after they face disciplinary action for alcohol or drug abuse. As a result, school administrators may miss students in need of support, says Jim Lange, executive director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery at Ohio State University. Lange says that, ideally, colleges would reach out to those students before they face disciplinary action and possible dismissal from their institutions.

Related: With student mental health struggles continuing to mount, colleges seek solutions to increase access, remove stigma >

How to reach students in need

CRPs have been successful at supporting students in recovery, even when the programs remain largely unknown to the general student population. A 2018 study found that 87.5% of alumni of CRPs had not relapsed since their graduation, thanks in part to services such as substance-free activities, housing for students in recovery, on-campus recovery meetings, relapse prevention, and supportive spaces for students dealing with addiction and for students with friends and family with substance abuse problems.

To connect students with substance abuse problems to CRPs, colleges need to engage the general student population, Lange and other experts say. Lange suggests universities screen students as they come through university health centers to identify those in need of CRP assistance. Kristina Canfield, interim executive director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, says that faculty also have a role to play, as they often know which students might need help. At universities like The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), students learn about recovery programs from their deans, activity fairs, orientation, social media, and substance-free programming, among other outlets.

TCNJ’s program helped Eric Van Eck, who first enrolled in the school in 2006, but whose substance-use disorder led to dismissal for poor academic performance. After his recovery and reacceptance to TCNJ, Van Eck began mentoring students dealing with substance abuse as a recovery and prevention coordinator at the university. Van Eck reassures students struggling with addiction that faculty, staff, and the community will not judge those in recovery. Van Eck tells The Chronicle that TCNJ’s recovery program “was an absolute life-changer.” He adds, “I had a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, a lot of feelings of being different-than… [the program] helped me find my voice.”

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