Simon Trelfa writes about trying to bring American ‘collegiate recovery programmes’ to UK universities.

A collegiate recovery programme is designed to “provide a supportive environment, educational opportunities, accountability, and a normative college experience” for students in recovery from addiction. Beginning with Brown University in 1977, over 150 American colleges have created collegiate recovery programmes to support students on campus.

The collegiate recovery movement began to gather significant momentum in 2005 with the publication of the Collegiate Recovery Communities Curriculum by Texas Tech University. For the first time, students, academics, and staff from student support services had a step-by-step guide on how to create a collegiate recovery programme at their own institution. This is what my colleagues and I hope will happen in the UK, as we adapt the curriculum for our work on this side of the Atlantic.

‘I felt unable to explain any of this in an academic setting’

At the time of writing, collegiate recovery programmes have been established at four UK universities – Teesside University, University of Birmingham, University of Chester, and University of Sunderland.

The collegiate recovery programme at the University of Birmingham takes the form of the Better Than Well programme, which is for students who wish to maintain abstinence-based recovery. Support provisions include “a weekly share meeting on campus in the style of a 12-Step Fellowship group, and a weekly SMART Recovery group”. In addition, “meditation and yoga is offered weekly, and there is a monthly sober social event”.

My role with the UK-wide collegiate recovery project is to lead the development of a new website dedicated to facilitating collegiate recovery programmes in the UK, including a series of downloadable manuals and tutorials. I bring experience in creating digital content, platforms, and solutions; I also bring lived experience. I was a student who dropped out of university due to addiction, eventually returned to university and found recovery while studying, and managed to rebuild a life that I nearly lost many times over.

If there was one consistent theme throughout this turbulent time in my life, it was ‘loneliness’. I struggled to understand my situation, I was riddled with shame about it, and I felt unable to explain any of this in an academic setting, even when I was in recovery. My hopes for this project – for collegiate recovery programmes – are huge.

Bridging academia and lived experience

The UK collegiate recovery project is supported by two steering groups – one composed of academics who have researched and set up collegiate recovery programmes all over the world, and the other composed of students involved in collegiate recovery programmes in the UK – both of which are meeting regularly to discuss progress and keep the project on track. Some of the people involved in these steering groups spoke to me about their motivations for supporting the implementation of collegiate recovery programmes in the UK, and some of the challenges around importing them from the US to the UK.

Declan Murphy is a PhD student at Texas Tech University, who researches collegiate recovery programmes and has participated in one himself.

“When I came to Texas Tech and saw what a [collegiate recovery programme] was, it just completely blew me away, and changed the course of my research interest as well. […] I’m here, now, in a recovery building on campus. Students elsewhere are partying all the time, but as a student in recovery you have this safe space among other students also in recovery. There aren’t valid reasons for this not to be happening on a widespread level.”

Declan published a paper in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly about the arguments for introducing collegiate recovery programmes in Ireland. This included the findings of the 2021 Drug Use in Higher Education in Ireland survey, which revealed that more than 60% of students in 21 universities have used drugs and almost 60% said it was a normal part of student life.

For students who engage with a collegiate recovery programme, the network of peer support creates unique communities and unique environments within the university campus where recovery can be nurtured. Research also suggests that collegiate recovery programmes could help students achieve improved academic scores (1 2 3). This potential benefit could make collegiate recovery programmes not only attractive to students in recovery, but to the universities and higher education institutions that support them.

Adam Petson completed a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree at the University of Teesside, while participating in and then coordinating its on-campus collegiate recovery programme. Reflecting on his involvement with the collegiate recovery programme, he said, “It helped me massively as a mature student”.

“That ability to be able to sit and talk and discuss things that affect you as a person in recovery, and as a student. The workload, the exams, the pressure. Being away from home, which is a new concept for a lot of people. All these different elements in this melting pot of university life – as well as staying focused on your recovery.”

He also acknowledged there has been a “shift in attitudes towards drugs and alcohol use”, and that collegiate recovery programmes could play a bigger cultural role in “opening up doors to future sober societies that may pop up on campus”.

Barriers to collegiate recovery in the UK

Despite their positive features, there are several cultural and organisational barriers that could affect the wider UK rollout of collegiate recovery programmes.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome, from Declan’s point of view, is that universities may be concerned about painting their institution as one that has a ‘drug problem’.

“From what I see there is a reputational element involved. If you approach a university and say that there is a percentage of students on campus – on any campus – that are in recovery from addiction, and in active addiction […] the immediate pushback is all around reputation. Launching a [collegiate recovery programme] suggests that ‘we’ (the university) have a drug problem. Meanwhile, the reality is that every university, bar none, has students heavily engaged in drug and alcohol use.”

Adam suggested that stigma could also affect whether individual students would “openly come out and say they are a student in recovery”.

“People are afraid to openly come out and say they are a student in recovery as it may affect their time, status on campus and even the course they are on. Personally, I’ve seen that if you are open and honest about your recovery, there isn’t a problem at all. The stigma is attached to the perception that it may affect you. And stigma is always there, hanging around in the background.”

Universities will likely require support to understand addiction and recovery, and the potential benefits of collegiate recovery programmes. Initiatives such as the Recovery Friendly University Pledge could help, encouraging institutions to educate staff and students and to take assertive action to make students in recovery feel welcome.

Addiction and recovery are part of the lives of many students in university. Collegiate recovery programmes are relevant to their experience and could not only make recovery possible, but help students to thrive in recovery.

by Simon Trelfa

About Simon

Simon is Marketing and Communications Lead at Recovery Connections. He lives a peaceful, productive life in Darlington, with his wife, four cats, and two fantastic young adults. Before grasping recovery, on 8 April 2016, he dropped out of university at least four times. Since then, he’s graduated from the University of Sunderland and University of Brighton, with a BA in Magazine Journalism, and MA in Digital Media, Culture and Society.

About the project

The UK collegiate recovery programme project was awarded an SSA Engagement Grant in 2023.

Join the team for the online launch of Collegiate Recovery UK on Friday 14 June 2024 (12:30–14:30 BST). This event is for “any student, administrator, student support, wellbeing service, or other professional working with students, including academics, who share the vision of creating recovery-focused environments within higher education in the UK”.

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.

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