Colleges and universities have tried to keep America’s brightest minds away from alcohol and other drugs for decades. Some schools employ stern disciplinary approaches, but others have built programs around awareness, treatment and support. Those schools are leading a movement that is saving the lives of thousands of students and giving them a chance to pursue an education.
For most students, it’s their first chance to try alcohol or other drugs without having to worry about their parents finding out. That’s what Harrison, a 2015 graduate of the University of Florida, realized during his freshman year in Gainesville. He had tried alcohol and marijuana in high school, but his parents kept a close watch on him. Growing up on a military base also made drinking and smoking difficult.“College is definitely where my drinking and drug use took off very quickly,” Harrison told DrugRehab.com. “I always had a strong desire to want to do that stuff, but my situation made it difficult.”
In college, Harrison used marijuana, cocaine and “pretty much any ADHD stimulant you can abuse.” He also experimented with hallucinogens such as LSD and mushrooms.
“College is definitely where my drinking and drug use took off very quickly. I always had a strong desire to want to do that stuff, but my situation made it difficult.”
More than 20 million Americans, 7.8 percent of people ages 12 and older, experienced a substance use disorder in 2015, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. An estimated 5.3 million people with a substance use disorder that year were between the ages of 18 and 25.The statistics appear daunting, but for prevention experts like Dr. Maureen Miller, college is a chance to educate students about the risks of alcohol and other drugs. Miller is the director of GatorWell Health Promotion Services at the University of Florida. “One of the exciting things about working within college health promotion is you have the opportunity to work with students who, for the first time, are really establishing behaviors that are probably going to be with them for a pretty long time,” Miller told DrugRehab.com. Miller and prevention specialists on college campuses across the country want to prevent problematic behavior from happening before it occurs. They teach students how to either abstain from alcohol or drug use or to consume alcohol responsibly. But some students come to college actively trying to avoid alcohol and other drugs.
When students in recovery from addiction enter college, they’re exposed to several risk factors for relapse. There’s a high chance that they’ll be offered alcohol or other drugs, experience peer pressure or see someone else drinking or smoking.
7.8% of people ages 12 and older experienced a substance use disorder in 2015.
There was another big deterrent in Harrison’s life. His father was in the Navy, so Harrison grew up on a base where using drugs was a federal offense. He had to drive past a guard every time he came home. Growing up in a military family wasn’t always good for Harrison, though.
“We were all moving around pretty frequently. Growing up, I had a lot of social anxiety and difficulty fitting in. That was kind of exacerbated by the fact that I had to move every two or three years.”
“I was pretty much grounded more times than I was not grounded my senior year of high school,” Harrison said. “I didn’t have the chance to use whenever I wanted to.”
Young people are the most vulnerable to addiction because their brains are still developing. The teenage brain is more likely to develop long-term changes from exposure to addictive substances than the adult brain. Thus, teens exposed to alcohol and drugs are more likely to use them as adults.
“If we look at the Monitoring the Future survey, despite the narrative on binge drinking, this year we have the lowest rate of binge drinking among high school and college students since 1987,” Hall said in 2015, before the release of the 2016 survey results.
25% of Americans who used an addictive substance before age 18 eventually developed a substance use disorder.
Lifetime Substance Use by High School Seniors
“This is something that students came up with, and it seems to be resonating,” Hall said. “We’ve got activities every week, such as an alcohol-free dance party, comedy shows and stuff where students can go.”
Hall is following the freshman class for two years to see how the behavior of the low-risk students changes during college. His hope is that the group will continue to abstain from alcohol or drink infrequently.
“It is a unique challenge because you need to make sure that you’re educating or orienting this brand-new group of students each year,” Miller said. “But we also have to make sure we continue to target students as they get older and they start to develop, mature and grow. They have different challenges and experiences as they get older.”
“It is a unique challenge because you need to make sure that you’re educating or orienting this brand-new group of students each year. But we also have to make sure we continue to target students as they get older and they start to develop, mature and grow. They have different challenges and experiences as they get older.”
He was introduced to ADHD medications such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Focalin. Like other college students, Harrison used the stimulants to recover from hangovers and to cram for exams. He could concentrate long enough to pass a test or finish a paper, but he struggled to do well over the course of an entire semester.
Colleges hope that prevention messages get through to students, but they have other programs for students who don’t hear or listen to the warnings. When students are referred to UCF’s Alcohol and Other Drug Services for conduct issues, they’re screened for substance use disorders and given feedback.
More than 5 million full-time college students drink alcohol every month, including 3.5 million who binge drink.
The school made him pay to fix property that he had destroyed, perform community service, attend an ethical decision-making seminar and go to a strengths coaching workshop.
“They have a shot at Alcohol and the Law or some other educational kind of program,” Scully said. “After the first incident, they go through an educational process.
For many students, referrals to these programs are the first chance they’ve had to examine their alcohol or drug use. The majority of students who receive treatment at UCF are referred from different departments on campus. Others seek help voluntarily.
Hall said UCF continues to provide treatment to students for as long as it takes, and a combination of student fees and insurance cover treatment for any enrolled student.
“Students who have problems tend to have continuing problems if they aren’t helped. Sometimes students come for an assessment, we make a recommendation, and the student doesn’t follow up on it. Then they end up having another incident.”
Harrison took weekly drug tests, attended group therapy twice a week and individual therapy once a week.
Weeks later, Scully explained the results of the test to him. She told him that she usually warns students of their potential for addiction based on the assessment, but with him it was past the point of potential.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a collegiate recovery movement began building momentum across the United States. Based on models developed at Rutgers and Texas Tech University in the 1980s, schools created collegiate recovery communities.
In 2015, an estimated 198,000 teens ages 12 to 17 received treatment for a substance use disorder.
Many CRCs have either on-campus sober housing for recovering students or roommate matching services so students can live with peers dedicated to sobriety. More than 150 CRCs are in development or operating across the country today. In Florida, CRCs are offered by the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University.
“Students in recovery who return to college have the highest GPAs among any categorized group of students.”
Although he was worried about the negative influences that are common on college campuses, he’s been able to maintain sobriety with the help of other students.“That’s one reason I got involved with Sober Knights,” Mark said. “I want to be around people who are good influences. There’re people everywhere who are bad influences, but it helps to know that you’re strong enough and that you have a support system.”
He found new friends at the CRC whom he could relate to.
At the time of his interview, Harrison was working an entry-level job to get experience in his field and filling out applications for graduate school. He’s still connected to people in recovery and is pursuing a future in sobriety.
“Every CRC activity is open to anyone,” Scully said. “We’ve had people show up to CRC who are not in recovery, but they are looking for sober activities. Anybody can come.”
Published on: March 22, 2017
Last updated on: March 3, 2020
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