Expanded support for students in recovery is 'a need, not a want'

Successfully navigating sobriety and school is challenging for college students in recovery, a group that often feels isolated and invisible. They're getting more support this fall with the expansion of Iowa State's collegiate recovery community.

How to donate

The collegiate recovery community is conducting a fundraising campaign through Nov. 15 on the ISU Foundation's FundISU platform.

The recovery community program run by student wellness launched in 2018 and has grown in the years since. This fall, it began offering one-on-one wellness coaching and SMART Recovery, a peer support group for students who have battled issues with alcohol or drugs, gambling, gaming or other addictions. The program also includes RootLess, a student organization formed in fall 2019 that organizes substance-free social activities and provides a community for recovering students.

"What a lot of students tell me is that these services are a necessity. It's a need, not a want," said student wellness director Brain Vanderheyden.

Becoming common

The first college-based recovery community formed about 40 years ago, but they've become more common in the past decade, Vanderheyden said. About 150 institutions have recognized recovery community programs.

"In the past 10 years they've really taken off on campuses because of the strong research showing that the college environment can be really hostile toward students in recovery," he said.

Nationally, about 20% of college students meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, and the prevalence among ISU students has historically been similar to the national average, Vanderheyden said. Those rates are even higher in many underrepresented or marginalized populations, such as students of color, LGBT students and those from low-income families. 

"I think sometimes we don't think of students in recovery as a diverse community, but they are," he said. "This is about creating an environment that supports all of our students. Sometimes, students in recovery just aren't part of the conversation."

What's offered

Iowa State's collegiate recovery community doesn't provide treatment and is not a crisis service or a 12-step program, though it can refer students to those resources. The aim is to provide peer connection and substance-free space. When that's available, recovering students thrive. Graduation, retention and GPAs of students in a collegiate recovery community are higher than an average student, Vanderheyden said.

RootLess has the highest participation of the recovery community programs, especially for its social activities. Following Cyclones Care protocols, the student-run group has continued to hold some in-person events this fall, including a bonfire, a disc golf outing and a painting night, Vanderheyden said.

SMART Recovery, the university's first recovery support group for students, convenes virtually every week to give members an avenue for self-encouragement and discussion. It will continue to meet during winter break to help students during what is a difficult time for many people in recovery.  

The free wellness coaching is meant to help students identify their strengths and set their own goals for school, overall wellness and sobriety. Follow-up meetings check in on progress and how to manage any barriers.

"The coaching is really about trying to elicit some internal motivation by helping a person discover what's best for them and how they can go about it," Vanderheyden said.

A graduate assistant who serves as the recovery community coordinator, Carlos Vidales, joined the program this fall and conducts the wellness coach sessions and facilitates the support group.

Future goals

To help the program grow, collegiate recovery community began a fundraising campaign Oct. 21 that runs through Nov. 15. Money raised via the campaign on the ISU Foundation's FundISU platform will help cover increased costs incurred from expanding this fall, with any additional funding going toward the next steps Vanderheyden would like to see the program take.

Those ambitions include establishing an on-campus treatment option, offering scholarships and free tutoring, securing dedicated program space on campus and creating an alumni group.

How to talk about it

Developing training to help faculty and staff be allies of students in recovery also is on the wish list.

"A lot of times it's faculty and staff who connect students with us," Vanderheyden said. "They're the ones having conversations with students."

If a faculty or staff member is concerned a student has a substance abuse issue, student assistance, Thielen Student Health Center and student counseling are the best campus resources to recommend, he said. If a student mentions an interest in sobriety, it's appropriate to refer them to the collegiate recovery community, Vanderheyden said. It's also good practice to thank them for bringing the issue up and acknowledge how challenging it can be to seek help.

"It's highly stigmatized, and there's lots of fear of coming forward. Acknowledging their strength and thanking them for their trust in you can be a powerful, empathetic response that shows students you care about their success and wellbeing,” he said.

Students interested in learning about the collegiate recovery community can contact Vanderheyden by email at collegiaterecovery@iastate.edu.