Collegiate Recovery: College Students Returning to School in Recovery Face Unique Challenges

Recovery from mental health conditions along with substance use disorder (SUD) is something that everyone handles differently. The same is true for students who are returning to school after treatment or starting college with a history of emotional and behavioral challenges in high school.

This transition to school can be very difficult for young adults in general and especially if behavioral health is a factor. To give these students the best chance to succeed, it’s important to understand the challenges they will face and what they can do to overcome them. 

It May Be Tough, but You Are Not Alone

Substance use is prevalent on most college campuses, which complicates the picture for students who are trying to maintain sobriety and a well lifestyle. In fact, using the word “prevalent” may be an understatement. 

Collegiate culture is often tied to binge drinking, keg parties, rowdy tailgates before sporting events, drug use, and other risky behavior—and unfortunately, there is a lot of truth behind the image. A 2017 study conducted by Northwestern University shows the extent of substance use among full-time college students:

  • 2.7 million students reported binge alcohol use
  • 1.8 million students reported use of an illicit drug
  • 733,000 students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder
  • 487,000 students met the criteria for an illicit drug use disorder

It may seem daunting to think of re-entering an environment like this after completing treatment but it can be done. In 2019, an estimated 840,000 full-time U.S. college students who attended college were in recovery from mental health and and co-occurring substance use conditions. The right guidance at the right time and help engaging with a supportive community are what make it possible.

The Most Common Challenges

A college campus can be overwhelming for any student, much less those in recovery. The challenges that all students will face, from making new friends to keeping a schedule to just getting enough sleep, can all make for a perfect storm for someone striving to achieve a sustainable recovery.

Many students are away from home for the first time and are adjusting to living on their own, establishing study habits, and managing their lifestyle. The peer pressure to drink alcohol or use drugs is pervasive and intense. Whether a student is struggling with substance use issues or emotional symptoms, or psychiatric diagnoses, drug use of any kind can significantly compromise the chances for success. All these common dynamics make it easy to understand why it may be difficult for a student to maintain a lifestyle of recovery. 

While each person is different, there are specific challenges that students in recovery are likely to face as well. According to Dr. Eric Beeson, a core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern, the challenges these students face most often include:

  • Explaining the academic and legal consequences of past actions
  • Transitioning from a treatment or care setting to an academic setting
  • Disclosing recovery status or mental health challenges to teachers and friends
  • Developing recovery support on or near campus
  • Balancing identity as a student and as a person in recovery
  • Finding recovery-friendly social activities and groups
  • Managing triggers and peer pressure
  • Relearning life skills, such as time management and budgeting
  • Navigating stigma surrounding Mental Health & SUD recovery

This list may seem overwhelming, but there is help. Our team at LifeTutors is here to help you or your loved one develop a plan and face each of these challenges head-on, so you can go back to school and take the next step to living well and creating academic success.

A Network of Support

One very important part of recovery is having a strong network of support. It’s likely that some of the people in your support network have been through the same experience and completed their college degrees while they were in recovery. You can learn a lot from them by reaching out and asking questions.

Students in recovery are constantly exposed to triggers that could hinder not only their health but their academic success as well. Living in a substance-free environment with a supportive community can decrease your stress and minimize those triggers.

Some colleges do offer substance-free housing for students in recovery. But if those options are not available, finding roommates who are also living substance-free can be an excellent alternative.

A growing number of colleges have gone a step further and developed collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) to support students who are recovering from addiction. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education currently maintains a database of more than 140 CRC programs across the country that offer counseling, substance-free housing, sober social events, and more.

These programs are designed to create a community of support and accountability apart from the typical party culture of most colleges. And it’s working—initial studies show that CRCs help promote recovery, prevent relapse, and improve educational outcomes.

Don’t Ignore Your Mental Health

A vast majority of college students—whether they are in recovery or not—deal with mental health issues of some kind. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a whopping 80% of college students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

NAMI also reports that 50% have struggled with anxiety and as a result suffered at school and 50% rate their mental health status as below average or poor. Many of these students turn to substances as a way to self medicate and find themselves with a habit they can’t break on their own.

College is a high-pressure environment and going through it with a mental health condition doesn’t make it any easier. Be sure to seek out appropriate counseling whenever needed, especially if you have conditions such as moderate to severe anxiety or depression or any kind of psychiatric diagnoses. 

Take it one step at a time.

No one should have to choose between their health or recovery and a college education. LifeTutors is a collegiate recovery and student resilience program that helps young adults transition back into academic live and forge a sustainable independence.

We work together with our clients and their families to help identify the appropriate learning and work environment suited to their goals, interests, and capabilities. Once we establish short and long-term goals, our coaches help them move through the challenges of finding work and completing school. 

Call 828-417-7122 to learn how our hands-on approach can get you back to school, back to work, and back to life. 

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