Supporting Students in Recovery on College Campuses

There are hundreds of thousands of students in recovery from substance use disorders (SUDs) on college campuses across the country. But unless you know them personally, you may not even realize they are a part of the student body.

“One reason they’re a ‘hidden population’ is that a lot of students in recovery will go to campus for as long as they have to be there and then leave as quickly as they can because college campuses have been referred to as ‘recovery-hostile’ environments,” said Dr. Eric Beeson, core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern.

This is unfortunate, said Dr. Beeson, given the tremendous assets that students in recovery could be to their campus communities. Many students in recovery don’t want to be seen as a liability. “They need to be supported and invested in, just like anybody else,” he added. 

But the growing movement to expand collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) is helping to ensure that institutions, faculty, and students are tuned in to the needs of this segment of the student population.

What Challenges Do Students in Recovery Face?

There are many paths to recovery, which can make it hard to define, said Tim Rabolt, executive director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE). Rabolt believes people in recovery need a common language to effectively talk about it. 

Dr. Beeson advises to start by debunking the biggest misconception about people in recovery—that they are still using drugs or alcohol and are trying to stop. In reality, people in recovery are generally abstinent from substance use and making tremendous life changes to promote their health, wellness, and contributions to society, he said.

Substance Use and Recovery on Campus

~2.7 million

full-time college students reported binge alcohol use in 2017

~1.8 million

full-time college students reported use of an illicit drug in 2017

~733,000

full-time college students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder

~487,000

full-time college students met the criteria for an illicit drug use disorder

~840,000

full-time college students attending college in 2019 will be in recovery

~64%

of students who leave college and no longer attend do so for behavioral health-related reasons

Sources:

1. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. “2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables (PDF, 37.8 MB),” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Sept. 7, 2018.

2. Harris K., Baker A., and Thompson A. “Making an Opportunity on Your Campus: A Comprehensive Curriculum for Designing Collegiate Recovery Communities,” Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University, 2005.

3. Gruttadaro, D. and Crudo, D. “College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health (PDF, 701 KB),” National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2012.

In addition to the typical challenges that many students face during the transition to college, such as finding new friends and navigating life without parents, there’s a slew of additional hurdles that students in recovery face from the time they apply to college through graduation day.

Unique Challenges for Students in Recovery

Explaining academic and legal consequences of past actions.
Transitioning from a treatment setting to an academic setting.
Disclosing recovery status to faculty and friends.
Developing recovery support on or near campus.
Balancing identity as a student and as person in recovery.
Finding recovery-friendly social activities.
Managing triggers and peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs.
Relearning life skills like time management and budgeting.
Navigating stigma surrounding substance use disorders and recovery. 

Source: Eric Beeson, core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern.

Collegiate Recovery Programs—What Are They and What Do They Offer?

For some students, balancing academic pressures and recovery-focused efforts is too difficult to do alone.

“Often times people focus so much on their academics that their recovery suffers, or they focus so much on their recovery that their academics suffer,” Dr. Beeson said.

To help students with a history of SUDs, universities across the country have been building and developing CRPs for about four decades. CRPs offer a spectrum of support services for students, although each specific program may have different offerings. A 2017 article Dr. Beeson co-authored for the American Journal of Health Education noted that there were more than 145 CRPs operating in the United States. The number is even larger today.

“The glue that holds it all together are the students themselves—students who have a dedicated space to work together, study together, and have recovery support meetings together,” said Kristen Harper, an expert and advocate for collegiate recovery and youth recovery supports.

Collegiate Recovery Programs

Only 35 colleges offered CRPs in 2012
> 145 colleges offered CRPs in 2016
2.4 M students now have access to recovery supports

Standards for CRPs Set by the Association of Recovery in Higher Education

  • Have dedicated physical space to gather
  • Embrace abstinence-based recovery
  • Have collegiate recovery community of students
  • Are nonprofits
  • Provide a variety of support services
  • Housed within an institution of higher education
  • Have paid trained, dedicated staff to assist students

Possible CRP Offerings

  • Scholarships for students in recovery
  • Recovery seminars for academic credit
  • Relapse training
  • Recovery housing
  • Campus awareness campaigns
  • Sober social activities
  • Abstinence contracts and accountability measures
  • Drop-in centers where students can gather
  • Academic mentoring
  • Recovery coaching
  • Professional counseling

CRP Students

  • Have higher GPAs than the general student body
  • Exceed retention rates of the general student body by 5%
  • Exceed graduation rates of the general student body by 21%
  • Have a return to use rate of about 5%

Sources:

“CRPs/CRCs: Standards and Recommendations,” Association of Recovery in Higher Education, 2017.

Transforming Youth Recovery: Annual Report 2016 (PDF, 1.6 MB),” Transforming Youth Recovery.

Jones, E. “Findings from the Transforming Youth Recovery’s 2017 Collegiate Recovery Census,” Transforming Youth Recovery, 2018.

Beeson, E., Whitney, J., & Peterson, H. “The Development of a Collegiate Recovery Program: Applying Social Cognitive Theory within a Social Ecological Framework,” American Journal of Health Education, 2017.


Does your school have a CRP? Visit ARHE for a list of universities and colleges that offer CRPs and learn how to start a CRP on your campus.

The Importance of Allyship

Dr. Beeson says “allyship” can also be a powerful support tool for students. In a 2018 article in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, he and his co-authors wrote that stigma from peers, sometimes the result of lack of awareness or social misunderstandings, can lead students to avoid seeking treatment. Peers on campus may also normalize unhealthy substance-related behaviors and fail to step in when others need help.

In that article, Dr. Beeson and his colleagues reviewed the development and evaluation of a pilot project called eRecoveryZone, an online ally training program included in the Spartan Recovery Program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. The goal of the program is to enable participants to better understand recovery-oriented language, serve as access points to campus resources for students in recovery, participate in a recovery-oriented system of care, be able to discuss personal messages of recovery, and promote themselves as allies.

In a study of people who had completed the trainings, Beeson and his coauthors found that the program helped participants better understand what recovery is, reduced stigma surrounding recovery, and increased self-reported ally behavior. He and his coauthors concluded that colleges and universities can benefit from adding similar online trainings for their students.

Check out sample videos from the eRecoveryZone trainings.

If a campus doesn’t have a formal ally program, there are actions anyone can take on their own and also share with other peers, faculty, and family members interested in allyship, too.

How to Be an Ally to a Student in Recovery

Educate Yourself

Be aware. There are people with many identities on campus, including “in recovery.” Learn about their experience and how you might educate others.
Don’t judge. Listen to their recovery story and validate their experiences and feelings. Don’t be a punishing influence.
Learn where recovery resources are on campus. Share those resources if you see someone struggling with a substance use disorder or in early recovery and seeking support.
Know the difference between substance-free and sober housing. One is a lifestyle choice. The other is for students in recovery from an SUD.

Create Supportive Spaces

Use appropriate language. Words like “substance abuse” and “dependence” tend to be stigmatizing and are fading out of use. Be mindful and use correct terminology like “SUD recovery.” Learn more about the language of addiction and why language matters when discussing recovery.
Choose not to drink or do drugs. Plan social activities that don’t include alcohol and drugs. There are risks when you drink or do drugs around someone in recovery.
Provide alcohol-free beverages at events. Offer more than water and make them appealing so that students don’t feel like an afterthought.

Check in

Ask “How’s your recovery going?” Knowing that they are not alone in their recovery can be helpful.
Ask a student about their mental health. If you’re genuinely worried, you can make a referral to a campus resource.
Remember when they seem unlike themselves. If you’re worried somebody’s relapsing, do not be afraid to name it. Ask: “Are you doing drugs again?” Learn about the signs and triggers for relapse.
Note important dates or events that may be challenging. Ask, “We’re coming up on the holidays and that can be hard for anybody. How are you doing?”

Be There to Help

If someone is drinking again and they want to stop, help them access ER support. People can die from alcohol or drug withdrawal and need medical help and access to lifesaving medication such as naloxone, which can be used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
If you’re worried, ask if they’re suicidal. Shame and fear of failure can lead to suicidal thoughts, but people in recovery may be afraid to talk about it without being asked.
Help them find the words to ask for help. If they don’t know how to say it, tell them how: “I’m struggling with substance use or with chemical use.”
Offer to take them back to treatment. If they say they’ve slipped up, help them find an addiction counselor or other treatment setting.

Sources:

Eric Beeson, core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern 

Tamarah Gehlen, director of the StepUP Program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis

Kristen Harper, expert and advocate for collegiate recovery

Tim Rabolt, executive director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE)

Download a PDF of how to be an ally to a student in recovery (PDF, 218 KB) 

With robust college recovery programs and peer and faculty allies, students recovering from SUDs can focus on getting their education, navigating this important period in their lives when they are developing self-identity, and achieving their full potential. It’s important for higher education institutions to always remember that like any other student, people in recovery bring assets and valuable experiences to college campuses that benefit the entire student body.

“I’d like to see recovery embedded in the fabric of higher education as a whole, so that when you go to campus, you don’t even think twice about recovery,” Rabolt said.

Additional Recovery Resources

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Citation for this content: Northwestern University's online Master of Arts in Counseling program.