“Community Recovery” and the College Campus (by Bill White and Kitty Harris*)


Collegiate Recovery ConferenceWhile addiction and addiction recovery are often portrayed as highly intrapersonal processes, the concepts of family recovery and community recovery suggest that larger ecosystems can be so wounded by severe and prolonged alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems as to need a process of sustained recovery. For a moment, let's explore this notion in relationship to American colleges and universities.

Alcohol, tobacco, and other drug experimentation has long served as a rite of passage from adolescence to young adulthood, and the use of these substances has been highly ritualized within American colleges and universities. Though not a new story, several factors have raised the stakes surrounding such ritualized drug consumption. The psychoactive drug menu has expanded exponentially over the last half century. New technologies have produced higher potency products and higher risk methods of drug ingestion. Also of particular import has been the growing trend of combining alcohol and other drug use during other high-risk activities and within high-risk settings.

Changing characteristics of college students have also exerted a noteworthy influence on AOD problems. The lowered age of onset of AOD use has compressed problem progression, with a greater number of young people entering colleges and universities at a later stage of AOD problem development--a trend that sets the stage for rapid problem acceleration within the campus milieu. Expanded access to college has also brought students into the campus milieu with a much broader spectrum of challenges and fewer family and social supports--factors that can profoundly influence AOD problem development and the degree of resources that can be mobilized for problem resolution. Growing gender equity in drug experimentation and related problems has also expanded the potential AOD casualty pool.

These influences are manifested in patterns of AOD use that are severely wounding collegiate communities. Such wounds can be measured in injuries and deaths, sexual assaults, other forms of violence and crime, academic failure, and student attrition. They can be measured in the incubation of campus AOD problems into full blown addictive disorders and the resulting effects of such disorders on individuals, families, and communities. But as this blog suggests, they can also result in wounds so severe that the campus-community relationship is violated and the very integrity, health, and viability of the educational institution are threatened.

If colleges and universities have experienced such sustained wounds, what would a recovery process entail What would it mean for a campus and its members to collectively recover from AOD and related problems We would suggest a parallel process between personal and campus recovery--a process through which each college campus (often in response to one or more crises):

1) experiences a period of precovery (consciousness-raising, problem acknowledgement, and commitment to action),

2) initiates recovery (strategic actions to reduce AOD-related morbidity and mortality),

3) maintains recovery (institutionalize policies and programs to sustain initial gains),

4) enhances quality of life in recovery personally and collectively, and

5) breaks intergenerational cycles of AOD problems (altering conditions that transmit or exacerbate AOD problems among new generations of students) via alterations in campus culture.

The recovery process of an educational institution wounded by AOD-related problems would have several distinguishing features. Institutional leaders (at governance, administrative, faculty, and student levels) would:

  1. Acknowledge AOD problems and their personal and community consequences, acknowledge the inadequacy of past institutional responses, and affirm a long-term commitment to address these problems.
  2. Mobilize key institutional constituencies (current/former students, parents, faculty, staff, and administration) who, in consultation with external experts, would develop, implement, evaluate, and continually refine a plan to address AOD problems on campus and promote student health and wellness.
  3. Visibly discourage excessive AOD use as incompatible with institutional mission, values, and culture (e.g., incompatible with academic excellence, leadership development, and positive contributions to the community/culture).
  4. Conduct a rigorous annual assessment and institutional review of the state of AOD-related problems and recovery support resources on campus,
  5. Assure the availability, competence, and technical capabilities of campus-based and community-based AOD emergency response resources,
  6. Provide early intervention resources for students experiencing an AOD-related incident or other measurable deterioration personal health or functioning, including systematic follow-up and sustained support of all students involved in an AOD-related critical incident (e.g., screening, assessment, and assertive linkage to recovery support resources),
  7. Cultivate and protect AOD-free space on campus via abstinence-contingent (AOD-free) housing options, promotion of AOD-free social alternatives, and AOD-free designated leisure space that can be enjoyed by students that do not want to be exposed to AOD use.
  8. Make "recovery" a visible part of the campus culture by recruiting students in recovery and supporting campus-based recovery support resources, e.g., mutual aid meetings, peer mentorship programs, AOD-free housing options, etc.
  9. Assure the availability and accessibility of campus-based professional and peer recovery support resources on a 24-hour basis, and ensuring that the professionals involved in university counseling centers are well trained in AOD counseling and recovery principles and practices.
  10. Instill an ethic of citizenship and mutual support (e.g., "We take care of one another.") within the campus culture and student code of conduct--asserting that preventing injury/sickness/death is the responsibility of all members of the collegiate community.

A growing number of colleges and universities are supporting what are generally referred to as Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRP) or Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRC). The common goal of the CRPs is to support and encourage students in their recovery and to provide a "safe haven" on the university campus so that they can attain an education in what would otherwise be a very dangerous and potentially recovery-compromising environment. CRP research to date reveals a positive impact as measured by academic performance, recovery stability, and quality of student life. Some early studies have noted that students in recovery who are involved in CRPs have higher GPAs and higher graduation rates than that achieved by the entire student body.

Although most CRPs have licensed and trained staff or faculty, the emphasis is on campus-based peer-to-peer recovery support and assertive linkage of recovering students to volunteer recovery support resources within local communities. Most CRPs have relied on Mark Salzer's Peer-Driven Social Support Model in the design of their programs. The model is based on social cognitive theory and is broken down to two major components: structural social support and functional social support. Structural social support is basically social integration---the benefits that come from being involved with others through recovery meetings, structured groups that are offered by the CRP, and recovery-supportive social events. Functional social support revolves around social resources such as administrative support from the university, funding for program development, and space for meetings and activities.

Salzer's peer support model involves the following five types of functional social support.

  1. Instrumental Support: concrete services such as filling out applications for scholarships, finding child care if necessary to be able to attend classes, academic advising, and housing.
  2. Emotional Support: having individuals around to discuss problems and offer encouragement and affirmation, e.g., peer support during meetings or leisure time and campus- and community-based adult support.
  3. Validation Support: confirmation and affirmation of recovery status and the value (positiveness and normality) of recovery through social comparison, e.g., diminishment of addiction-related stigma and support for abstinence via membership in a campus-based recovery community.
  4. Companionship Support: establishing relationships that provide a relational context for AOD-free social activities that enhance a sense of belonging and provide a safe venue for developing and practicing drug-free social skills.
  5. Informational Support: providing information to students to help them problem-solve and learn decision making skills, e.g., CRP orientation classes and training opportunities that focus on CRP core values and expectations and how to navigate life within the larger campus community.

Research led by Texas Tech University established the first National Recovery Student Database and found that the above areas of peer support were critical in attracting students in recovery to a CRP and in predicting their degree of satisfaction with their CRP involvement.

What would it mean for the health of young people and the health of colleges and universities if such supports were available and visible in every college and university in the country?

*Kitty S. Harris, Ph.D., LMFT, LCDC, is Professor of Addictive Disorders & Recovery Studies and Director of Recovery Science Research, Department of Community, Family & Addiction Services, Texas Tech University.