Allies and role models are crucial for students in recovery

Acknowledging an addiction to alcohol or drugs isn't easy. Even as mental health treatment becomes more normalized, substance use disorder largely carries the same traditional stigma.

"There are very few medical conditions out there that you're blamed for having," said Ryan Doyle, health promotion coordinator for collegiate recovery and substance use initiatives. "Some people still attach a lot of morals to it. But recovery is not about bad people becoming good people. It's about sick people becoming well people."

Two new initiatives by Iowa State's collegiate recovery community, CRC, a support program run by the student health and wellness office, hope to make it easier for students struggling with substance use to seek the help they need. In different ways, both efforts involve faculty and staff, who play a critical role in making the campus welcoming to students in recovery or seeking to be.

"The decision to even consider recovery doesn't depend on reaching some set point, like you've missed five tests and now you know you need to be in recovery. Certain things can push them to that. Having someone in their life they feel open to having a conversation with -- and that person being equipped with tools to have that conversation at that moment -- is really important," Doyle said.  

A group for connections

CRC doesn't provide substance use disorder treatment or run 12-step groups. Its aim is to create a supportive community for students in recovery and refer them to resources. Much of that community-building is peer-based, but participation in some way by faculty and staff in recovery would be valuable, Doyle said.

"We know that having role models has an effect on students," he said.

That's the thought behind a new group CRC is starting for employees, Faculty and Staff Connection. The group is holding its first meeting Feb. 11, a social brunch 10:30 a.m.-noon in 2030 Student Services Building.

Faculty and Staff Connection is not a support group for employees, Doyle said. The goal is to develop a group of employees who could connect with students in CRC programming. What that will look like, and the level of interest among faculty and staff, remains unclear.

"That's a very tough ask: 'Hey, is there anyone out there in recovery who is comfortable raising their hand and talking about it.' This is an informal attempt to connect faculty and staff in recovery and get them in a room to start a conversation," he said. "The long-term idea is that this group will connect with students. But it'll be baby steps to get there."

The group is open to ISU retirees and to employees who aren't in recovery but consider themselves allies. Doyle said expanding the group in that way benefits employees in recovery who are interested in helping students but aren't public about their experiences with substance use or other addictions.

"It gives people who don't necessarily want to be out about it a reason to be there," he said.

Faculty and staff who can't make it to the Feb. 11 meeting but have interest in the group, as well as anyone with questions, can email CRC at

Training allies

A training offered for the first time this spring also will expand the recovery support network among faculty and staff.

The 90-minute sessions, which also are open to students, will educate participants about substance use disorder, including guidance on how to effectively listen to students expressing a need for help and constructive ways to respond using supportive language. Trained allies will be better prepared for conversations with students in or considering recovery and be aware of available resources, Doyle said.

"They need to have a glove when the ball comes at them. We're just passing out gloves, really. That doesn't mean they'll always catch it. But we want them to have that ability," he said.

Borrowing a concept from Green Dot, another student health and wellness training program, those who complete the training will receive a sticker, placard and button to designate they are a recovery ally. That provides students in need of someone to talk to a helpful visual cue.

"Getting that going is really, really important," Doyle said.

Training sessions this semester will be held on the second and fourth Thursdays through April, typically in-person in various rooms in the Memorial Union except for the virtual sessions March 24 and April 21. See the recovery ally webpage for a schedule and sign-up form. Departments and units also may request a group training session.

A growing community

CRC launched in 2019 with a student organization and expanded in 2020, though pandemic precautions prevented it from growing as quickly as hoped, Doyle said.  

Doyle, formerly the coordinator for substance use education and prevention at YSS, began in his position in November, with half of his appointment focused on leading CRC, an expansion of staffing for the program. As of last month, it also has newly dedicated space (2030 Student Services Building) to hold group meetings and offer students a place to study or socialize.

In addition to its original student organization, CRC runs an "all recovery" peer support group for students in any stage of recovery and a support group for friends, family and allies. All three groups meet weekly. CRC staff, which includes a graduate assistant, also offer one-on-one recovery coaching sessions for students. More than 30 students are currently involved in CRC.

Doyle said the hope is to continue to expand what CRC offers, but even having a program like it remains a rare example of support for a population of students who are are isolated and overlooked on campuses. Though they've become more common in the last decade, there still are only about 150 CRC programs in the U.S., among more than 4,000 colleges and universities, he said.

"We are in the minority starting to focus on this," he said.