Are sober dorms the newest “best” thing happening on college campuses?
Substance misuse is a real and ever-present problem at colleges and universities across the United States. Freed from parental supervision, feeling separation anxiety, struggling with academic pressure, and most of all, facing heightened peer pressure, many students regularly turn to alcohol or drugs.
It is estimated that approximately 30% of college students meet the criteria for a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). That is potentially thousands – or even TENS of THOUSANDS – of young people in need, often without an obvious place that they can turn to for help.
Now multiply those students in need by all of the colleges and universities in the country.
But even when they get the help they need and embrace society, they can find campus life challenging. There is a definite dearth of services, support, and activities designed with students in recovery in mind. Even every day student life – parties, football games, holidays – can feel exclusionary because of the presence of alcohol and/or drugs.
And while other historically “marginalized” populations – ethnic groups, LGBTQ, gender equality – now have resources and support within the campus setting, the same hasn’t been true for people in or needing recovery from addiction.
In fact, the opposite is often true. Some schools are hesitant to embrace students in recovery, needlessly worrying about problems that simply don’t exist—crime, medical issues, and even a sense of “propriety”. They erroneously equate recovery with active drug use.
A new movement is underway in the form of Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs). These programs offer services and support that avoid some of the substance abuse pitfalls that are everywhere on college campuses. By creating a sobriety-friendly environment – a collegiate recovery community (CRC) – colleges are helping students stay sober and stay in school.
How Big Is the Problem of College Substance Abuse?
“Parents should be encouraged to have open discussions about alcohol and marijuana with their children before they go off to college.”
~ Dr. Mark Olfson, Columbia University
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration reports that 1.2 MILLION college students drink alcohol.
- 63% of 18-22-year-old college students self-report drinking alcohol within the past month
- 41% have been intoxicated.
- A third of all college students have engaged in binge-drinking within the past 2 weeks.
Alcohol use in college is dangerous. Annually:
- More than 1800 college students die because of alcohol-related injuries.
- Almost 700,000 college students are assaulted by some other student who had been drinking.
- Nearly 100,000 college students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
And it’s not just alcohol – over 700,000 college students use marijuana on a daily basis. That is 4.9% of all college students, or roughly 1 out of every 20.
Think about that percentage –
At a large school like the University of Colorado (enrollment: 31,000), there are at least 1550 DAILY pot smokers. Even at a small school like the University of Idaho (enrollment, 11,780), there are almost 600 students who get high every single day.
Other college substance abuse statistics:
- Over 40% of college students have used an illicit drug or inhalant sometime within the past year
- 24% have done so within the past month.
- Marijuana – 22.2%
- Amphetamines – 3.8%
- Tranquilizers – 1.8%
- Cocaine – 1.4%
- Ecstasy – 1%
- Barbiturates – 0.9%
- Hallucinogens – 0.8%
- LSD – 0.4%
- Heroin – 0.2%
Robert DuPont, head of the Institute for Behavior and Health, says, “you’re surrounded by people who are using alcohol and drugs in addictive ways. Someone else is paying the bills, and there’s no supervision.” DuPont was also the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 1973 to 1978.
What Kind of Collegiate Recovery Programs Are in Place?
Let’s face it – the college lifestyle doesn’t exactly support abstinence from drinking and drugs. So, the idea of schools working to provide an environment more supportive of sobriety and recovery is both welcoming and overdue.
Kelsey Otten is the Prevention Coordinator for the University of Kentucky, and she says, “Substance use is often normalized on college campuses. Incoming students might have entered recovery before going to college, or are trying to return to college after seeking treatment, and are very nervous about coming back to the same environment they left. It can be very overwhelming.”
“The CRC provides that safe environment where they can be themselves and be surrounded by like-minded individuals.”
And here’s the thing – such a positive environment benefits both the individual students with problematic substance use and the school as a whole. It is in the school’s best interest to provide an atmosphere that is as welcoming, supportive, and safe as possible. Typical services and activities included in most CRPs might include:
- Mental health counseling
- Substance abuse therapy
- Support groups
- Peer support
- Academic tutoring and coaching
- Study groups
- Professional development
- Mindfulness meditation
- Weekly dinners
- Holiday celebrations
- Positive social activities
- Programs and recreation that promote a sense of community on campus.
5 years ago, only about 35 colleges had a CRP in place. Now, there are more than 150. It has become a growing and positive new outreach.
CRPs – A Good Idea Put into Practice
For example, earlier this year, the University of Alabama at Birmingham observed its second annual Sober Spring Break, an entire week of activities offering alternatives to the raucous Spring Break atmosphere that could jeopardize the sobriety of students in recovery.
Luciana Silva, the Program Manager for UAB’s recovery community, says, “Spring break is a triggering time for most college students in recovery. We want to give them an opportunity to have fun sober.”
What kind of activities were planned for UAB’s Sober Spring Break?
- A kayaking trip
- Wall climbing
- An equine-assisted wellness workshop
- A community cookout – the WHOLE recovery community, including people residing in local treatment centers and other people in recovery from the community-at-large
Silva says, “It’s important that students who have made a commitment to sobriety forge a connection with the larger recovery community. It is also a way to give back to the community that has helped them so much.”
Sober Dorms on Campus – Creating a Safe and Supportive Space
Right now, there are about 50 campuses that also provide special on-campus sober housing. The goal was to give students in recovery a safe and sober place to live where no alcohol or drugs are allowed. In this small micro-community, recovering students can also support each other.
College students who are committed to their own lasting recovery need mutual support from each other and from the larger community of the university if they want to both stay healthy and excel academically.
Some schools even allow students to live in the sober dorms year-round. This gives those students a better sense of stability that allows them to focus on their recovery and on their school work.
It also gives them a place to decompress between or after classes. Before the existence of sober dorms, students in recovery would have to return to the residence halls where rampant drinking and drug use was a nightly occurrence.
And while one of the earliest lessons learned in recovery is to avoid the people, places, and things that may trigger thoughts of substance use, it’s not realistic for a college student to avoid their own dormitory. When interviewed about the CRC at the University of Kentucky, one student in recovery said, “It was hard to be around certain friend groups or in certain locations after coming back to college in recovery. I had to be more aware of what situations. I was putting myself in.”
Think about it – before sober dorms, sometimes the only thing separating a student in tenuous recovery from a return to active substance abuse was the bathroom they shared with their dormmates. Just on the other side of the door, they could hear the partying and smell the booze and weed.
Hence the need for sober living spaces.
Avoiding the Loneliness Trigger
CRCs work to ensure that students in recovery feel included and that they get the whole “college experience”. This has a practical side, too, because social isolation can be a trigger that leads to relapse. The focus on community helps alleviate boredom and loneliness.
The interviewed UK student also said, “Being able to relate to other young people makes you feel less alone, like you aren’t the only student on campus that doesn’t drink.”
On any campus with a CRP in place, the regular meetings, sober activities, relevant services, and mutual support helps alleviate the sense of alienation felt by those students whose lives have been disrupted by alcohol or drug abuse.
Taking it a step further, those schools who fully realize the CRC concept by providing sober dorms actually create safe havens that are themselves a resource for students in recovery from addiction. The students know that many of their dormmates have faced the same issues they may be struggling with. This means they always have someone to talk to who won’t judge them – a fellow addict or alcoholic in recovery.
Lisa Laitman, Director of Rutger University’s Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program, says, “Our students really flourish in this environment. It really is a social experiment where you can put people who are in recovery on a college campus. As long as you can provide them with friends and a place that’s safe and a certain amount of activity, they do really well.”
Sober Dorms Are Good for the Whole Campus
But don’t get the wrong idea – sober dorms aren’t JUST for students in recovery.
On the contrary, some schools allow ANY student willing to live by the rules and abstain from substance use can apply to live in a sober dorm. This could include any students who avoid drinking and drug use because of:
- Religious obligations
- Moral reasons
- Athletic commitments
Sober dorms even benefit those students who don’t live there. When they go to visit their friends that reside in substance-free housing, they will get a first-hand look as to the possibilities of a drug-and-alcohol-free college experience.
And when they see that it is possible to be fun and sociable WITHOUT intoxicants, it gives them positive options that can influence their own behaviors. In other words, it can help them choose other activities besides the stereotypical binge-drinking or getting high.
Moving Forward with Sober Dorms
One of the positive consequences of the national attention on the ongoing opioid epidemic is that colleges and universities are looking at ways to curb student substance abuse. Sober dorms are one such way.
How successful are these dorms at promoting sobriety and recovery?
According to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, a nonprofit that promotes CRPs, 95% of students who have access to these programs don’t relapse. For comparison, the general population relapses at up to a 60% rate.
In fact, sober dorms are such a good idea that in 2015, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a requirement that every state-run university and college in the state MUST offer sober housing if at least one-fourth of its students reside on campus.
If you or someone you care about is or will be attending college, contact the school to inquire about CRPs and other supports in place that promote a safe and substance-free college experience.