Myths have existed in our society since the dawn of time. The world is flat. Using leeches helps cure diseases. Sanitariums are the only cure for alcoholics. And the one that concerns this article most, college students in early sobriety need to take time off from college to be successful in their recovery. Until recently that might have been the case, but not because they weren’t ready to take on the challenges of recovery and academics. The primary reason this had been true was that there were very few resources available to recovering college students regarding how to navigate both a recovery program and the college environment.
We have learned through trial and error that peer to peer recovery programs work. When doctors, lawyers, or airline pilots are placed in treatment together they seem to do better and support each other more effectively because of their commonalities. The same is true for college students. While there are some excellent young adult treatment programs in existence today, very few address the specific needs of college students. And most treatment professionals would all agree that there are unique differences between young adults in college and young adults that are not.
This article will address how to work more effectively with college students who are struggling with addiction, as well as introduce you to two programs that focus exclusively on this population.
Consider the following as reported in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report, June, 2009:
- About one fifth of young adults aged 18 to 25 (21.1 percent) were classified as needing treatment for alcohol or illicit drug use; 17.2 percent were in need of alcohol use treatment, 8.4 percent were in need of illicit drug use treatment, and 4.4 percent were in need of both alcohol and illicit drug use treatment.
- Less than one tenth (7.0 percent) of the young adults who were in need of alcohol or illicit drug use treatment in the past year received it at a specialty facility.
- Of the young adults who needed, but did not receive alcohol or illicit drug use treatment in a specialty facility in the past year, 96.0 percent did not perceive the need.
- Less than one third of the young adults who did not receive treatment in a specialty facility but thought they needed it made an attempt to obtain it. 1
The National Institute of Health reported in “What Colleges Need To Know: An Update on College Drinking”:
- 19 percent of college students ages 18–24 met the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.
- 5 percent of these students sought treatment for alcohol problems in the year preceding the survey.
- 3 percent of these students thought they should seek help but did not.
- The students who drink most heavily are the least likely to seek treatment; yet they experience or are responsible for the greatest number of alcohol-related problems on campus2.
The implications of this data are numerous. First of all, there is a huge population of college students who are in need of services and support for addictive behaviors. For the most part, we as treatment professionals need to do a better job of working with this client base and supporting them in getting back on campus successfully.
What you need to know about working with college students:
- They are task oriented. When given clear direction, they will follow.
- They love success. Even small successes.
- Start them back on campus slowly. One or two classes max in their first semester back sober. Do NOT overload them or let them take more than one difficult class when they first return.
- Pick their classes with them. Starting with a psychology 101 class, creative writing, or a basic math class will help build their confidence and ease them back to campus.
- Address their triggers. You never know what they might be. Have many discussions around this topic, especially if they are returning to the same campus they were on before their sobriety started. Park in a different parking lot, get a new backpack, know where meetings are on or around campus. And most importantly, don’t sit in the back of the classroom. Sit in the front two rows and in the middle of the room if possible.
- Know who your support people are on campus, both academically and personally. Know where the tutoring center is, as well as the academic support office.
- Know the campus you’re sending them back to. Is there a substance abuse counselor on staff or a health educator who works with students in recovery?
- Is there some sort of program or group for students in recovery on campus?
- They need to learn study skills and time management. Have them carry a day planner and use it.
- Teach them how to talk to their professors. Mandate that they go to office hours and get to know their professors. Encourage them to ask questions, either during or after class.
By following these guidelines professionals can better address the needs of their clients who are looking to go back to college in early sobriety. Let us now introduce you to two programs that are specifically addressing the needs of college students.
The first is the Collegiate Treatment Center (CTC) at The Pat Moore Foundation in Costa Mesa, California. The CTC is a 30-60 day inpatient treatment program specifically designed for college students. Not only are CTC clients exposed to 12 step treatment, they are also taught the skills necessary to return to campus sober. Educational programming throughout the week focuses on topics such as: Study skills, time management, managing triggers, coping strategies, finding resources on or around campus, where to sit in class and how to talk to a professor. The CTC staff works with the client’s college to work out medical withdrawal or leave of absence as well as looking for support networks on and around campus should the client (with the recommendation of the treatment team) choose to go back to their primary campus.
The CTC also evaluates aftercare options and looks for the best placement for each client following graduation from the CTC. Some go on to long term treatment, some go on to sober living, and some do return to their former campus with a solid support network in place when they return. Each client is different. It is important to assess each individual in order to determine what his or her specific needs are following primary treatment.
The second is the HERO (Higher Education Recovery Option) House, a sober living community for college students in early recovery or for those coming out of recovery high schools looking for a sober community as they begin their college career. Almost all residents come from a primary treatment setting, whether inpatient or outpatient. In order to qualify for admission, residents must be in college or want to go back to college while living in a recovery community. Upon admission, each resident receives an academic assessment to effectively place the resident in the appropriate college setting. A joke around the HERO House is that the last time the student was on a campus, their BAC was higher than their GPA. That’s why most residents, especially those in their first two years of college, go to a two year college their first semester in the program. The philosophy is to ease the student back onto campus while learning how to effectively balance a recovery program with academics. In their first semester at The HERO House, they are allowed to take only one or two classes, again not wanting to overload the student in their first semester back. They also learn how to be a successful student. They learn study skills, time management, how and where to look for academic and personal support on campus, and “success in the classroom” skills.
In addition to helping them learn how to navigate college successfully, residents must also fully engage in a program of recovery. The HERO house is 12- step based and residents must attend a minimum of four 12 step meetings per week although most residents attend at least 6 per week. Residents also have an opportunity to meet with a recovery coach once a week to go over their progress or lack of progress in balancing recovery and college. Residents must have a sponsor within two weeks of residency and are expected to have regular contact with this person.
Residents also have the opportunity to attend educational programming that addresses academic skills and life skills such as self-esteem, leadership development, relationships, and recovery skills. A frequent topic at The HERO House is the difference between sobriety and recovery. Active recovery is a main focus in the program and residents are aware that they will not be able to stay in the program if they do not actively pursue recovery.
Having fun in sobriety is also an important component, with numerous programs happening weekly. From white water rafting trips to movie nights to attending professional sporting events, residents are exposed to a variety of activities to teach them the joys of sober living. The theory of “We are not a glum lot” is emphasized by staff on a regular basis.
The HERO House has been in operation for almost four years in Atlanta and they currently have 5 houses operating for both men and women. Recently, they opened a new location in San Juan Capistrano and have three houses for men. At some point at the beginning of next year, they will be opening their women’s program in the Southern California area.