Category Archives: College Students

Getting and Staying Sober in College

sober living dorms

The Rise of Collegiate Recovery Programs

There is no easy time in life to start your recovery journey. When you’re struggling with any sort of Substance Abuse Disorder (SUD), whether the substance is alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription medication, you have a tough, life-changing, and possibly life-saving decision to make. Once the decision is made and you commit to taking positive action to address your SUD, you realize getting sober is only the first step on a long road. You quickly understand that in the grand scheme of things, the detoxification period – a.k.a. quitting your substance of choice and surviving withdrawal – is relatively short, whereas recovery is forever. There’s no real debate about this. If you don’t come to this conclusion on your own, it’s one of the first things you hear from addiction counselors, therapists, and people in support groups: recovery is a lifelong process.

Any new beginning is delicate, and can set the tone for whatever phase of life you’re entering. That’s why getting and staying sober is especially challenging if you’re a college student. The deck is stacked against you both socially and culturally. The college years are widely accepted as the period of life when you can experiment with alcohol and drugs without experiencing major consequences. It’s almost expected that a typical college student, living away from home for the first time, with easy access to alcohol and drugs – possibly for the first time – will dabble with drinking and smoking marijuana. College students who get caught drinking under age or with small amounts of marijuana are often let off with little more than a slap on the wrist, often delivered with a knowing smile, a friendly wink, and an understanding nod. Even extreme behavior, such as binge drinking and forays into harder drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and hallucinogens, tends to be overlooked or readily forgiven.

For many, this de facto acceptance does not present much of a problem. You go to college, you get a little wild, then something happens to pull you back to earth. You have some sort of near-miss – maybe a scrape with the law, maybe an automobile accident, or maybe a sub-par academic semester – and you see it as a wake-up call. You get your act together, cut back on the risky behavior, and get on with your life.

For others – meaning anyone prone to substance addiction and abuse – the permissive status quo is a recipe for disaster, particularly where alcohol is concerned. The NIAA College Fact Sheet reveals that the drinking habits of college students make them particularly vulnerable to developing an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The facts speak for themselves:

  • Close to 67% of college students who reported drinking at least once a month also engage in binge drinking
  • Binge drinkers who consume alcohol at least three times a week are six times more likely to perform poorly on a test due to drinking, and five times more likely to miss a class due to drinking
  • Roughly 25% of college students report alcohol negatively impacts their academic performance
  • About 20% of college students meet the established criteria for an AUD.

In an environment where the majority of your peers drink regularly and the overwhelming preponderance of social activities revolve around alcohol, getting sober is tough- but staying sober is even tougher. The prospect is so daunting you might feel like you’re in a no-win situation, and you think your only options are to drop out or suffer through four years of self-destructive behavior. If we’ve just described you, then don’t despair. There’s real help out there for you. It’s closer than you think, and it’s gaining momentum with each passing semester: The Collegiate Recovery Movement.

Collegiate Recovery Programs and Collegiate Recovery Communities

What began as a small program at Brown University forty years ago is now a bona fide, evidence-based, time-tested approach to achieving and maintaining sobriety for college students. Today, over 150 institutes of higher learning across the country provide alcohol and substance abuse recovery services for students. These programs revolve around four core elements:

  1. Academic Support. Tutors and guidance counselors assist with the transition from treatment programs back to the rigors of daily class work and studying.
  2. Recovery Support. Collegiate programs help connect students with on-campus support groups such as AA, NA, or SMART Recovery, when available, or local support groups if none exist on campus.
  3. Crisis Management. Many programs connect students with mental and behavioral health support through on-campus clinics or hospitals. The presence of qualified health professionals is particularly helpful for students with co-occurring disorders, those who overdose, or those who haven’t yet entered recovery seeking information or advice on the best steps to take.
  4. Relapse Prevention. Successful collegiate recovery programs provide resources for sober social activities, offer workshops on how to manage peer pressure, and advice on navigating tricky social situations.

These four components are critical in helping college students get and stay sober, but there’s another piece of the puzzle that can make all the difference: your living environment. If you’re doing everything right, recovery-wise, i.e. abstaining from alcohol or drugs, going to support group meetings, seeing a therapist or counselor, and avoiding alcohol-centric social functions, your recovery may be more difficult if you live in a college dorm. When you’re surrounded by peers actively engaged in the party-hangover-class-party-hangover-class cycle, you probably feel like you’re swimming upstream, because you are.

Thankfully, there’s an additional option to explore: recovery housing.

Sober Dorms: The Missing Link in Collegiate Recovery

A study on social support for recovering alcoholics published in 2009 reveals a key data point:

“Those who added at least one non-drinking member to their social network showed twenty-seven percent increase at twelve months post-treatment in the likelihood of treatment success, and sustaining abstinence.”

This insight is critical: it proves that a sober social network can drastically increase your chances of maintaining sobriety. If adding just one non-drinking member to your social circle can increase your chances of staying sober by twenty-seven percent, then imagine what it would be like to live in a dorm surrounded by dozens of sober peers.

It could be a game-changer.

The best example of a sober dorm is the Recovery House at Rutgers University, located on their main campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Established in 1988, Recovery House was the first recovery residence hall in the country, and it’s set the standard for sober dorms ever since.

Here’s how it works:

  • Students must be sober for at least 90 days to be eligible
  • Students must attend at least two support group meetings per week
  • Students must attend a monthly house meeting
  • Students have access to a dedicated substance abuse counselor employed by the university
  • Students have access to 140 sober social activities over the course of the school year, organized by the house staff

And it does work. The statistics on residents of Recovery House are compelling:

  • The average GPA is a solid 3.23
  • Students living in the house for more than one semester have an average GPA of 3.4
  • Students living in the house for more than ten semesters have an average abstinence rate of 95%
  • Each semester, 98% of house residents either return or graduate – 13% higher than the university average
  • Over its thirty years, roughly 600 students have passed through the house

College Students: Find Your Community, Find Your Recovery Peers, Find Your House 

If you’re a college student working a sobriety program but feel your recovery is in jeopardy because you’re surrounded by non-stop alcohol, drugs, and partying, please don’t give up. You may be right: your recovery may be threatened by your current environment, and your best option may be to look for a different place to finish school. As mentioned above, over 150 colleges and universities across the country offer recovery services for students, and of those, 50 offer sober residence facilities. You might not find your recovery community right away, and it might be necessary to take a semester off while you get everything in place. While it might be hard to leave your school and your friends, consider this: making the move sooner rather than later might just prevent you from relapse. Which, if you’ve been listening to your counselors and recovery partners, might just save your life – not to mention graduate with that degree you’ve worked so hard to earn.