Collegiate Recovery and the Continuum of Care: Finding a Recovery Community on Campus Makes a Difference

For a college student in recovery from alcohol and drugs, living on a college campus can pose significant challenges. With the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reporting that the majority of college students engage in underage binge drinking on a monthly basis, it’s clear alcohol is still an ever-present part of the college experience.

The NIH has deemed college drinking “a significant public health problem that exacts an enormous toll on the intellectual and social lives of students.” According to the Center For Addiction Medicine, 26.4% of 18 to 25-year-olds meet the criteria for substance use disorder. Similarly, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), approximately 20% of young adults between 18-21 meet the criteria for substance use disorders.

These circumstances may help to fuel a perfect storm for students to develop substance use disorders during their college years. According to Inside Higher Ed, “the sophomore year of college is the most challenging year and is where retention rates live.” As pressure begins to mount, we tend to receive distraught calls from parents concerned that their college-aged child’s life is unraveling due to alcohol and drugs.

Our priority is then to assist the family by connecting them with the most appropriate level of care for their child that will allow them to get help while mitigating any academic issues. Fortunately, many universities have incredible staff and faculty who are willing to collaborate – going above and beyond to support the family and the student. Assuming all proper releases and documentation are signed by the student, these faculty members work with us and with the student to help navigate the various processes and protocols at the respective college so they can prioritize their health while keeping their education intact.

In many cases, when in need of a higher level of care, students would prefer to stay near their college and attempt to finish out the semester. However, in our experience, it may be more beneficial for them to temporarily leave the environment and receive clinical care before deciding how to proceed with their education. For example, it may be in their long-term best interest to petition the college and their professors to be granted an incomplete, a reasonable accommodation to be proctored exams off-campus, or another option that allows them to prioritize treatment and recovery.

Most young adults with whom I work want to resume their college education following treatment but are anxious about returning to a potentially triggering environment. Additionally, at this age, peer affiliation and a feeling of belonging is important, and isolation can put them at a greater risk for relapse.

That’s also why it’s critical that students are not only informed about their educational options, but also empowered to return to college in a healthy and supportive environment. Non-profit organizations, such as the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), have made a significant difference in this space with their focus on supporting students in recovery on college campuses. In fact, ARHE is the only association exclusively representing collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) and collegiate recovery communities (CRCs), the faculty and staff who support them, and the students who represent them.

It’s also important to understand that not all recovery housing is the same. For example, Collegiate Recovery Housing is for those in recovery and for those wishing to participate in a community of recovering students committed to staying sober and actively engaging in their recovery. A CRC may offer recovering students a chance to live together, go to class together, participate in events together, and more. A Collegiate Recovery Community may have its own designated staff coordinators and supervision. The idea behind collegiate recovery is to help students in recovery remain connected to the college, maintain their sobriety, and stay part of a community, which is just wonderful.

We encourage families to ask detailed questions to determine if a school has a Collegiate Recovery Community. Examples include:

  • If a high school or college student wants to resume their education after treatment, is there a designated university staff member familiar with recovery who can help the student connect and navigate the sometimes challenging admissions or re-admissions process?
  • Is there a specific admissions process for those students disclosing they are in recovery?
  • Are there scholarships available for students in recovery?
  • What services does the university’s counseling center offer, and does it have specific counselors designated to supporting students in recovery and/or the collegiate recovery program at the respective school?
  • Does the school have staff dedicated only to the CRC?

It takes a great deal of resiliency and strength to attend college in recovery. Students in recovery in many cases must learn coping and related life skills required to function as an adult in college. These skills are essential to not only succeed academically, but also to develop emotional maturity to deal with stress without using substances or engaging in self-destructive behavior. In fact, students in recovery attend college for what it’s meant to be – a place to learn, grow, develop strong friendships, and find a career path. Ultimately, the coping skills that flourish as a recovering individual in a college environment will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

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