Binge drinking, blacking out, experimenting with drugs—it’s all considered pretty “normal” as far as the college experience goes. Some students’ GPAs suffer as a result. Some have to drop out of school. Though it might seem simple to write this off this as excessive partying and adolescent irresponsibility, where does that leave students living with Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)? The stereotype of the hardcore partier student has made SUDs confusing to recognize and handle—for both school administrators, and the students themselves.
The substance use that’s stereotyped as “partying” on college campuses isn’t always such a party. Students with SUDs, and college-aged students in general, often are struggling with mental illness, like anxiety disorders, depression, and mood disorders. According to the American College Health Association Spring 2015 assessment, two-thirds of students who are struggling with mental illness do not seek help. When you’re at an age that glorifies excessive substance use, when everyone around you is drinking and getting high, how can you recognize your own behavior as problematic? And what can you do about it?
Seeking help for an SUD as a college student is no easy task, but that much-needed support is becoming more available through Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs). At Vanderbilt University, the CRP known as Vanderbilt Recovery Support (VRS) has helped to bring a newfound focus on mental health to their Nashville campus and provide support for Vanderbilt students living in recovery from SUDs.
“Not Only Did I Need To Get Sober, I Needed Outside Help”
Despite the partying culture on most college campuses, CRPs are making it more possible for students to get sober and stay sober in college. For Naresh, drug and alcohol use brought him to an all-time low in the middle of his college career at Vanderbilt. “I was coming off a 1.6 GPA, a series of bottom experiences involving drugs and alcohol, and an overall depression.” At that point, college life was far from a party. Though it seems like the campus environment would threaten any chance of sobriety, Naresh is now about to graduate, pursuing his PhD in electrical engineering, and will celebrated four years of sobriety last May.
Then there’s Victoria, who was attending a U.S. military academy when her alcohol use reached its peak. During her time there, Victoria was violently assaulted, leaving her with a severe brain injury and short-term memory loss. “It drove me to a point where I realized that not only did I need to get sober, but I needed to get outside help,” she said. She eventually enrolled at Vanderbilt as a student in recovery. Despite relapsing during her first year there, then taking a year of academic leave due to progressing mental health concerns, Victoria is now sober, working a program of recovery, and completing her junior year.
Resiliency like this is a rare quality—a unique kind of resolve I see among people in recovery—but we also need support along the way. In addition to their individual programs of recovery, VRS offers students on-campus support, sober residence halls, and a private space for sober students—the VRS Lounge. “If I didn’t have that room, I don’t know where I’d go,” Victoria says. The reality for many college and community college students is that there is no safe, sober place to go. Programs like Vanderbilt Recovery Support provide a supportive community and a safe alternative to the partying scene.
Getting and Staying Sober on Campus
The sober college experience has its challenges. Even at Victoria’s transfer student orientation, there was a frat party. When another student told her, “you look like you need a beer,” Victoria declined—but he opened the beer anyway and put it in her hand. Don’t worry, Victoria poured out the beer in the bathroom and filled it with water. But, this kind of temptation and peer pressure is everywhere. There is the constant reminder that, if you want a party, you can find it. “It was so hard being in the dorms,” Victoria says, “hearing the music and the partying and constantly being told, ‘there’s a party—come to it!’”
Despite these challenges, most undergraduate students involved in VRS actually got sober while they were in school. “It was very tough at first. I felt very different,” Naresh says of starting his junior year as a person in recovery. “I had to continuously remind myself that I was bodily different than those who could go out and party on the weekends.” College can be a catalyst for people to find out who they are and additionally for them to forge their career paths. This process of identity formation can be especially complex for students in recovery.
VRS is a resource to support students in recovery through those years. “It can feel very lonely dealing with an SUD,” Katherine says, who’s been working with VRS for the last 5 years. As the adult child of an alcoholic, Katherine’s personal insight into the condition drew her to the field. She firmly believes students dealing with SUDs need to know where to get help if they need it, and those in recovery need a support system so they don’t feel alone in their sobriety.
Katherine works as a coach with students one-on-one—helping them get acquainted with the VRS community, and helping students who are contemplating getting sober get connected with outside resources. She refers some students to Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) that they can participate in while they’re still in school. Others take a leave of absence to participate in a treatment program. In either case, there are a number of quality treatment programs in Nashville, many of which are within walking distance of the Vanderbilt campus.
Connecting Students Around Nashville
To ensure that the community is a safe, sober place, students need a minimum of 90 days of sobriety to apply to the VRS program. As members of VRS, those students gain exclusive 24/7 access to the VRS Lounge, which is located in the Center for Student Wellbeing. “It’s so important to me,” Victoria says. “I can sit there and eat alone and not feel weird.” And Naresh agrees, “the Center for Student Wellbeing has been a second home for me.”
It’s crucial that students have this safe sober space, where there’s no potential threat to their recovery. But even students without 90 days, or those who aren’t yet sure about recovery, can still find support in VRS. The group hosts recovery support meetings twice a week on campus, with 20 to 30 people in attendance. “Anyone can attend meetings,” Katherine says, and that includes faculty and staff. “They’re completely open, you just need the intention to come to the meeting—you don’t have to be completely ready to be sober.”
By opening their doors like this, VRS is able to connect with and support so much more students who might have gone without help—even those from other campuses. Because Vanderbilt is the only university in the area with a CRP, students from Bellmont, Lipscomb, Trevecca, and Nashville State come to the campus to attend VRS meetings. Support like this for fellow community members is essential in Katherine’s eyes. “It helps them feel less isolated.”
Building A Community
The sense that students aren’t alone is central to successful recovery in college, and the university administration recognizes this. Now, with over 12 years in existence, Vanderbilt Recovery Support has expanded so much that the university has invested in designated sober spaces on campus, like the VRS Lounge and Recovery Housing. A sober community like this can make a world of difference in a student’s life. Their recovery housing is a sober living and learning community available for undergraduate students. These suites and single rooms are located on campus and students interested have to go through an application process. However, the rewards to joining this one-of-a-kind community can help leaps and bounds with those that are new to recovery, or those that are already immersed in the culture. Students in recovery housing are provided with individual mentorship, weekly meetings, random drug screenings, and peer accountability.
But, VRS students are also involved in the campus community as a whole. They show recovery-oriented movies on campus, they participate in the alcohol awareness program presented to all first-year students, and they even speak at events and academic seminars. At Rites of Spring, an annual on-campus concert, VRS manages the Hydration Station tent—a safe sober space where VRS students pass out water and can help keep other students safe. Isolation and the fear of missing out can be enemies of recovery, but Vanderbilt Recovery Support continues to provide an inclusive counterculture for sober students.
“It has given me a place to feel a part of,” Naresh says. “Some people have music groups, some have religious groups, I have VRS.” Rather than living in silence, secrecy, or shame, students in recovery can be open about their journey and share their story. “Getting the word out reduces the stigma,” as Katherine has witnessed first-hand. “The ultimate goal is not only to have students get sober and maintain their sobriety, but also to really have a cultural shift on campus,” she says. “It’s the only way students can truly feel supported.”
Mental Health is Essential on Campus
In her 5 years of working with VRS, Katherine has seen the collegiate recovery movement grow from around 30 CRPs to almost 150. This is a promising shift, but it’s equally important that mental health resources are available on campus. In 2015, around 1 in every 7 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 qualified as having a Substance Use Disorder. Nearly 1 in every 5 young people were diagnosed with a mental illness, and almost half of the young people with a Substance Use Disorder also had a co-occurring mental illness.
Young adults in college are at a definitive time in terms of their mental health, as nearly three-quarters of chronic mental illness begins by the age of 24. After Victoria relapsed at Vanderbilt, she experienced severe depression and a “deep spiritual sickness.” It wasn’t until she sought professional help that she learned she had been living with a mood disorder. Just as much as students need support in their recovery, they also need access to mental health resources.
VRS is connected with the Center for Student Wellbeing, so Katherine can also connect students with the Psychological and Counseling Center on campus for mental health support. The Center welcomes all Vanderbilt students to participate in workshops on resiliency, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. And, a number of years ago, Vanderbilt’s chancellor created a “Go There” campaign, encouraging students to “go there” by seeking the help that they need to support their mental wellbeing. “Vanderbilt is a highly rigorous institution,” Katherine says, “and it’s difficult to ask for help.” That goes for all students—both in an out of recovery.
Recovery As a College Student Is Possible
Recovery as a college student is possible. Academics are obviously a priority in college, but Katherine advises, “recovery is number one, academics are number two.” In addition to learning study skills, students in recovery need to learn life skills, as well as emotional skills—rather than numbing their emotions.
“I know first-hand how hard it is to get help on a college campus riddled with drugs and alcohol,” Naresh says. “I love telling people that it is possible if they are willing to work for it.” And he is living proof.
In addition to working a program of recovery and having a system of support, Victoria says, “remember that it’s okay to be alone.” There’s so much pressure to socialize in college, but “sometimes being alone was a lot healthier than forcing myself to socialize.” Fun absolutely still happens in recovery, but a lot of things that used to be fun aren’t going to be fun anymore—like going to frat parties. “I have to give myself a break,” she says. “I’m not missing out on some iconic college experience.”