By: Lauren Porter
The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) was founded in 2010 to support students recovering from mental health and substance use disorders in both their recovery and higher education journeys. They recognized inherent challenges that students in recovery face, as well as the great strengths and potential they brought to the table with their experiences. Each year, on their anniversary, they recognize a Collegiate Recovery Day, which is a time to remember the millions of students in colleges and universities around our country that are living in recovery.
Before we continue, we need to define recovery. One definition I am fond of is the working definition from SAMSHA: “Recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” While being in recovery is most often associated with alcohol and drug addiction, it spans far beyond this. It also includes things like mental health disorders, self-injury, eating disorders, and addictions to things like gambling, sex, and shopping.
When I began college in 2015, I had identified as a person in recovery for many years. This was an important part of my identity. Throughout college, I was an active member of my university’s collegiate recovery center, where I received my own peer support and later became a leader and provide mentoring to other students in recovery. I became a peer recovery coach, lead support groups, provide harm reduction education on campus, and even spoke at the ARHE conference about the importance of including mental health in the discussions around student recovery. After I graduated, I shifted my recovery community outside of the collegiate sphere but continued my journey by becoming a board member with ARHE where I got to support other collegiate recovery spaces. I believe that being a student in recovery made my higher education experience much more difficult at times, but having access to professional and peer support helped me overcome them.
As we work to create inclusive spaces and support our sisters and community, we must not forget people living in recovery. 1 in 7 students meet the criteria for a substance use disorder and nearly half have a diagnosable mental health disorder. It is more likely than not that people in your chapter, people you are recruiting, or people you are friends with are in recovery or will be. Many of my sisters were aware of my recovery journey and were there for me when I was relapsing or having a resurgence of symptoms. There were times I wasn’t able to do all the things that I would be able to do when I was well. Sisters came to my recovery graduation, events that I wanted to go to, or trainings that I had organized. They came to the collegiate recovery center to hang out with me, were a listening ear when things weren’t going well, and reached out when they noticed things were off. There are many ways to be an ally to people in recovery.
Ultimately, every person’s journey is unique, and what they need for support will be different. These are some general guidelines based on my lived experience and resources from ARHE that may be helpful as you begin to think about supporting this population.
1. Don’t assume someone is in recovery or isn’t in recovery.
You can’t tell someone’s story just by looking at them. You may have a sister that never uses substances and assume she is in recovery from addiction. Or, there may be a sister who regularly uses substances, and you think there’s no way she’s in recovery. People may be in recovery from different addictions or conditions, and they all exist along a spectrum. Someone may use substances but is in recovery from an eating disorder. Someone may have a mental health disorder but not identify as someone in recovery. It’s important to not assume and to let people choose how they identify.
2. See if your school has a collegiate recovery center.
My collegiate recovery center was critical in my recovery and my completion of college. We hosted a lot of events for allies, including a Recovery Zone ally training, as well as meditation groups, craft nights, and trainings. It’s good to know about these resources to offer up to your sisters and an office where you can build relationships as you further your DEI commitment.
3. Be mindful of your language
Words like “substance abuse,” “addict,” and “mentally ill” can be stigmatizing. While some people use these terms for themselves, a good default is person-first language, such as “person with a substance use disorder” or “person with a mental illness.” It’s important to reduce stigma in the way that we talk about these things in order to promote acceptance and inclusivity.
4. Check-in about mental health
Regularly check-in with your sisters and friends about their mental health and how they are doing. Check out the AFSP’s “Seize the Awkward” campaign for tips on how to do this.
5. Check-in about recovery
If someone has shared with you that they are in recovery, ask them if they’d like you to check-in with them about it. A simple, “How’s your recovery going? Is there anything I can do to support you?” can go a long way.
6. Don’t be afraid to express concern
If you notice someone using drugs or alcohol more than usual or in a dangerous way, or if you notice other things such as eating changes or new wounds on their body, checking in with them could be life-saving. These types of changes are not only a sign that someone may be facing a mental health or behavioral health disorder, they are also a risk factor and warning sign of suicide. Don’t be afraid to tell someone what you are noticing, see if they need help, and help them find resources. Your school’s counseling center may be able to provide specific guidance for you.
7. Have substance-free options
It’s important to recognize that substances are often part of Greek Life experiences. Alcohol shows up at parties, formals, and post-meeting dinners. Marijuana makes its way around a campfire at a reunion. It’s important to be mindful of how often substances are appearing, and if all social interactions include them. Are there any social events that are substance-free? Are you perhaps leaving a member out who might not want to be around substances? While this is not a recommendation to try to make everything substance-free, it is a prompt to think about how often substances are part of the social event, and if people are aware ahead of time that they will be there.
8. Listen to stories and recognize strengths
If people are sharing about their recovery journeys, listen non-judgmentally and honor the vulnerable space that you have been invited into. While people in recovery face many challenges, they have also overcome great obstacles. This strength is an asset to them and their communities.
Just like everyone else, people in recovery need support and other people. This year, I hope you take time to consider how you can better support people in recovery in your chapter and on your campus.