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Colleges offer safe havens for sobriety

Campus recovery centers help recovering students find camaraderie, support
University Business, September 2016
At the University of Oregon’s Collegiate Recovery Center, students can relax in a lounge with free coffee and tea.
At the University of Oregon’s Collegiate Recovery Center, students can relax in a lounge with free coffee and tea.

To combat a surge in opioid overdoses and continued abuse of alcohol, colleges and universities are expanding services and facilities that aim to keep students in class as they recover from addiction.

Along with counseling and academic advising, these centers host watch parties, hiking trips and other activities students can enjoy sober with peers also going through recovery.

Because addiction afflicts all sectors of the campus population, staff at The Ohio State University are developing resources to assist recovering undergrad, graduate and professional students, says Sarah Nerad, program manager of the school’s Collegiate Recovery Community.

Its recovery center has computers, a media room, a kitchenette, an arts and crafts room, and two offices for staff. Space to study, meditate and pray are provided, too. Students can attend 12-step meetings and weekly support groups there, and community members have access to the space 24/7, says Nerad.

Students become formal members by applying with two letters of recommendation and interviewing with staff, and sometimes students. Membership consists of social events; a structured recovery program; eligibility to live in the Recovery House (a sober dorm); opportunities to apply for recovery scholarships; and a mandatory weekly, hour-long discussion meeting.

Most recovering students at Ohio State become members after seeking professional treatment, but some have achieved sobriety through the recovery community, says Nerad. There is an opioid abuse medication program for students set up through Student Life and Student Health Services, but the recovery community doesn’t provide medical or clinical support.

Data Points

  • 22.7 million: Americans over 12 years old estimated to have needed treatment for substance abuse in 2013
  • 2.5 million: Those who sought treatment at a facility

Source: National Institute of Drug Abuse

In Maine, which has been battered by the opioid epidemic (opioid-related deaths spiked to 272 in 2015), the University of Southern Maine has a new Recovery Oriented Campus Center.

Members of the university’s Students & Recovery group expanded peer-to-peer support on campus with a $40,000 grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The grant was matched by the university.

Programs now include recovery and study groups, meditation and stress reduction, yoga, life skills and leadership training, dinners and movie nights. Senior peers will reach out to new members, establishing themselves as another recovery resource.

“Students learn social skills, developing a sense of belonging and creating community,” says Diane Geyer, coordinator of clinical substance use services.

And at the University of Oregon’s Collegiate Recovery Center, weekly seminars cover topics ranging from life skills to study habits, plus 12-step meetings. The center provides space for crafts and organizes community service projects that offer constructive sober activities for participants, says Al Siebel, senior staff therapist and alcohol and drug coordinator at the counseling and testing center.

“We help students to navigate the campus sober, and provide them with a supportive, safe place to hang out and to connect with their peers,” he says.

Campuswide care

Collegiate recovery centers partner with other departments to provide holistic services. Ohio State’s community grew out of a campus wellness program, and participates in diversity and inclusion initiatives to improve retention and graduation rates, says Nerad.

Ohio State’s Student Life Disability Services provides priority registration for recovery students and additional accommodations that they may need.

“We also have access to our student’s grades and schedules,” says Nerad. “We provide recovery-informed academic advising to ensure they are prioritizing their recovery and building a schedule that they will be successful with.”

Professional development and leadership opportunities are offered to members throughout their college careers.

At Oregon, meanwhile, a recovery center faculty advisory council helps students to schedule classes so they don’t overload themselves during the early stages of recovery, says Siebel.

Recovery centers seek to create a positive social outlet for recovering students, in addition to assisting them academically. Ohio State’s recovery center co-hosts sober tailgate and watch parties for football and basketball games.

U of Oregon holds sober watch parties in a catered tent that welcomes any spectator who wants to enjoy the game in a safe environment. Oregon also partners with Oregon State and Southern Oregon University, with each hosting a quarterly sober event for recovering students.

Recreational swimming and snowshoeing trips to Crater Lake National Park, bowling tournaments and rope course outings help to create a larger sober network for students. By connecting people and schools statewide, these friendships benefit students after graduation, both socially and professionally, says Siebel.

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