Addiction isn't shameful – so why aren't more universities offering students the support they need to recover?

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Addiction isn’t shameful – so why aren’t more universities offering students the support they need to recover?
© Getty Images

University life can perpetuate addiction if the right support systems aren’t in place.

– Getty Images

As a mature student in recovery from addiction, the heavy drinking norms of freshers’ week and university life thankfully passed me by. But, for many students, this transition into higher education can be incredibly challenging.

The thing is, while conversations around mental health more broadly are embraced by universities, conversations around addiction and recovery are few and far between. When was the last time you heard a university proudly talking about the support they can offer to students experiencing problems with addiction?

I’ve noticed a reluctance from universities to acknowledge the issue – as though students experiencing addiction problems are themselves problematic. Put simply, stigma around addiction is still rife. A survey conducted by NGI and QuMind in 2019 revealed that one in three people believed that those living with addiction problems “brought it on themselves”.

We all have a responsibility to challenge this stigma – and that includes universities. My hope is that, with the Duchess of Cambridge launching an addiction awareness campaign with the Forward Trust, perhaps now will be a good time to open the door to more positive conversations?

Being in recovery myself, and having worked in the higher education field for some time, (as part of my role I’m often based at Teesside University to provide on-campus support – one of just two universities that positively acknowledge the issue), I truly believe that universities should be proud of their student recovery population. The work that is put into managing your own recovery can’t be underestimated, and, through programmes such as 12-step, we learn so much about ourselves – our outlook, our responses, our ego and, significantly, how we can give back to others through mutual aid. Another thing that can’t be underestimated is the sheer power of mutual aid – or peer support – particularly when stigma is such a problem.

If lived experience was a university degree, most people couldn’t afford the time or the tuition fees. And yet, what people in recovery bring to the table is invaluable. I have sat in front of more therapists and counsellors in my time than I can remember – and all were helpful to some degree. But the key ingredient that was missing was relatability – nobody could say to me, “I’ve been there” or “I know how that feels”. When you’re struggling with a problem that the general public think is your fault, you need to hear from others who have been through it too – addiction thrives on shame and isolation.

People in recovery, from what I’ve seen, tend to have a real thirst for knowledge, and a willingness to succeed in the face of adversity. Personally, I learnt to demonstrate humility and to understand my limitations, to ask questions when I didn’t understand something and, ultimately, to keep going – one day at a time. It’s why peer support on campus is an approach that I think is incredibly useful for any student who might be struggling with addiction and close to dropping out of university.

Inclusivity appears to be of vital importance to universities, with many marketing teams talking about how if you join their university you can access wellbeing support for common mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, or join a thriving Bame or LGBTQ community. But people in recovery, or those who are in active addiction, are simply not included in such messaging. It’s as though the problem doesn’t exist, when, in reality, not only is it a common problem that affects many students, but university life can actually perpetuate it if the right support systems aren’t in place.

Put those support systems in place though, create a culture of recovery on campus, and I guarantee those students will do you proud.

As of today, there are only two UK universities that facilitate a campus recovery programme (or collegiate recovery program/CRP as it is known in the US). Teesside was the first, and Birmingham the second. As of 2020, we also had less than 10 sober societies in the UK. However, the picture in the US is vastly different, with hundreds of CRPs in existence.

A CRP, or campus recovery programme, when promoted by a university, provides those students in recovery (including those who have lived with family addiction) to access a supportive community, find people to talk to, safe social events to take part in and be signposted to relevant groups or services locally. Similarly, for students currently in active substance-based or process addictions (such as gambling, gaming or shopping) it means that they know where to turn when they feel ready to take their first step into recovery – and somewhere where they won’t be met with judgment.

A member of our group recently commented that the only reason they didn’t take cocaine one weekend was because they were looking forward to meeting their peers in the campus recovery group. Without support students would be unwell and eventually drop out. While it may also put off prospective students from applying to university due to a lack of acknowledgement when they get there. Plus, in ignoring the needs of this group, universities are not being truly inclusive. And that’s not something any university can be proud of.

Given all of the points raised, much credit needs to be given to both Teesside and Birmingham universities for taking the first step – for standing up and acknowledging the issue and offering students their respect and support. I just hope that more will follow.

Adam Petson is campus recovery coordinator for Recovery Connections.

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