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What if students have gone through treatment for alcohol addiction or drug abuse, and now they’re back on track, focusing on their education and future? Their success in school depends on managing their sobriety. And studies show that stress, academic challenges, and exposure to alcohol or drugs are all factors that can raise the risk of relapsing. Increasingly, substance dependency (or addiction) is understood as a chronic condition that requires ongoing management. For someone who is working to stay sober, this is the dilemma: How can they steer clear of those triggers and manage their addiction while also having a fulfilling experience?

Recovery Programs
Close up of hands

Students who are “in recovery”—working to maintain their sobriety—may find success in dedicated recovery programs. These programs vary, but may include drug-free housing, sober hangout space, social events with supportive peers, and meetings, counseling, and supports tailored to address the pressures and triggers associated with staying free of alcohol and/or drugs.

Shifting medical and societal attitudes toward addiction appear to be helping. “There’s a trend to recognize dependency/addiction as a chronic illness, like diabetes or Crohn’s disease,” says Dr. Davis Smith, a staff physician at the University of Connecticut Student Health Center, and medical director of Student Health 101. “Like those physical conditions, substance dependency behaves differently in different individuals, is not a marker of physical or spiritual weakness, and requires ongoing attention/treatment to manage it.”

This increasingly empathic understanding of drug dependency makes it easier for people to seek the resources that could help them. “Students have changed enough that they are not so worried about anonymity as they are about finding the support,” says Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, former senior director of BACCHUS initiatives and training at NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), a leader in peer-education initiatives addressing alcohol use at US colleges.

It also helps that students in recovery are not the only ones who are avoiding alcohol and drugs. Among more than 29,000 US students who responded to a national, anonymous survey, 20 percent reported that they had never drunk alcohol, and 16 percent said they had drunk alcohol but not in the past 30 days (National College Health Assessment, spring 2016).

Recovery programs help students succeed and graduateTeacher and student at computer

Early research suggests that these programs can help students succeed academically and graduate from college. A 2014 study involving 29 collegiate recovery communities found that their students had higher GPAs and graduation rates than the general student populations at the same colleges (Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions).

That success reflects the determination of these students to move forward, says Joan Masters, senior coordinator at Partners in Prevention, a consortium addressing substance abuse on Missouri campuses. “Students in recovery take every choice seriously and day-by-day. Going back into higher education is a commitment, their second chance.”

Support is key to recovery

As is the case for students who make the commitment to pursue higher education, having the support and understanding of those around us is critical to managing recovery. Creating a schedule that accommodates opportunities to access support and maintain focus can mean asking for more from family and friends. If you encounter other students who are sharing success in recovery, consider ways to create informal learning cohorts where the shared experiences can serve as support and motivation.

What does recovery programming look like?Group of happy students

Recovery communities vary widely, both in the types of services available and in what they require to access them. “There are many models of different types,” says Masters.

Recovery programs typically include some (but not necessarily all) of the following elements:

  • Meetings typically emphasize peer support. These can take various formats, such as the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the coping strategies emphasized in SMART Recovery, or the Christian fellowship of Celebrate Recovery (see Find out more today).
  • Sober or drug-free housing – this may mean a shared understanding with family or room mates that substance use in the residence is not okay.
  • Individual or group counseling to address recovery-related issues, such as relapse prevention and coping strategies
  • Sober leisure activities and social events
  • Dedicated staff with expertise in recovery
  • Classes dedicated to addiction recovery

Programs may specify a particular recovery approach or allow community members to choose what works for them. For example, at Oregon State University, “We want students to choose their path of recovery. We don’t define what that looks like as long as it is positive for the community and they are not using,” says Ruyak. 

The average age of students in college recovery programs is 26, according to the Journal of American College Health (2016)—a number that hints at the nontraditional routes of many students in recovery (as explained below). “In our program, they’re from age 19 into their 40s, ranging from people who are literally just getting sober to people with nine years of sobriety,” says Sarah Nerad, program manager of the collegiate recovery community at The Ohio State University.

Many recovery communities are open to others, including:

  • Students who are not in recovery but are sober and/or don’t use drugs; e.g., because of their religious beliefs or a family history of addiction
  • Students in recovery who are sober and do not need major supports
  • Students who are taking a break from drinking or substance use as a lifestyle choice or who are considering getting sober
  • Students who are not sober but are allies to their sober peers

Ask to speak with a Student Advocate in the Office of Student Access and Wellness at Ashford.  Student Advocate’s can assist you with identify the recovery services that are available in your local community.  “If you have taken time out for substance use treatment and are looking to return to school, factors that improve your chance of success include the presence of a recovery program, psychoeducational programming (e.g., handling stress and triggers), and access to group meetings,” says Dr. DeRicco.

To be admitted to recovery programming, staff may consider:

  • Your treatment history
  • Your duration of abstinence/sobriety before you start the program
  • Your insurance coverage and work or other benefits

The program may require:

  • Your regular participation in a specified program (e.g., 12-step meetings) or a program of your choice that supports recovery
  • A signed sobriety contract (sobriety may be defined in various ways)
  • Your agreement to drug testing
  • Costs or fees for some services

It’s not necessarily easy to know if your own alcohol and/or drug use has become problematic. If alcohol and/or drugs are negatively affecting your life, or you’re having trouble moderating your use, it’s important to seek help earlier rather than later.

Six percent of the US student population meets the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependency, according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (2002). For some students, risk-taking is a developmental stage that they outgrow. Others may be self-medicating in response to an underlying emotional and/or physical health issue that isn’t being addressed in healthier ways.

When students seek help managing their alcohol or drug use, they may not know when how to begin. There are great online screening tools for identifying risky substance use and assessing the need for further support. Brief interventions can help some manage their use and avoid further negative consequences.

These questions can help you figure out if your drinking or drug use is problematic:

  • When you start drinking and/or using, are you able to stop before you start to experience negative consequences?
  • Are you able to set rules for your drinking or use and comply with them? For example: using only marijuana, not other drugs; drinking only on weekends.
  • Is your drinking or drug use having a negative impact on your life? For example: declining grades; friends losing patience with you; legal or disciplinary consequences; spending more money than you can afford on alcohol or drugs; life starting to feel unmanageable.

11 criteria that indicate problematic use (VeryWell.com)

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Article sources

Beth DeRicco, PhD, director, higher education outreach, Caron Treatment Centers, Pennsylvania.

Joan Masters, MEd, senior coordinator, Partners in Prevention, University of Missouri Wellness Resource Center; regional consultant, The BACCHUS Network, NASPA.

Sarah Nerad, MPA; program manager, Collegiate Recovery Community;director of recovery, Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery, Office of Student Life, Ohio State University.

Ann Quinn-Zobeck, PhD, former senior director of initiatives and training, The BACCHUS Network, NASPA.

John Ruyak, MPH, alcohol, drug, and recovery specialist, Oregon State University.

Davis Smith, MD, staff physician, University of Connecticut Student Health Center; medical director, Student Health 101.

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