More sober living programs popping up on campuses - Albuquerque Journal

More sober living programs popping up on campuses

Ryan had a pattern: He’d enroll in college with the best of intentions, start drinking and drugging, then drop out. Three years ago, as he prepared to enroll at the University of Miami, his fifth school, he had what he called a “white light moment.”

“I realized there was absolutely no way I’m going to stay sober,” he said.

So Ryan decided to try something different. He enrolled at Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, and moved into the Recovery House, a special dorm that offers “substance-free” housing and activities for students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

The support Ryan found there helped him stay sober and excel in his classes, he said. In May, he graduated cum laude.

“It was a safe space with people who were trying to do what I was trying to do,” said Ryan, 25, who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his privacy. “No one was talking about going out and getting drunk. It was the antithesis of my previous dorm experiences, where the shackles are off and people go crazy.”

The nation’s opioid epidemic is focusing new attention on a strategy Rutgers pioneered in 1988. Last year, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law that requires every state-run college and university in New Jersey to offer sober housing if at least a quarter of its students live on campus. The law gives schools four years to comply, but the College of New Jersey was already preparing to open a sober dorm, which it did last fall. Elsewhere, Texas Tech opened substance-free housing in 2011. Oregon State University will offer such accommodations this coming school year.

Sober dorms are a “major new development in the recovery movement. They’re unique because they get to the heart of the beast,” said Robert DuPont, a psychiatrist who specializes in drug abuse. DuPont, who heads the Institute for Behavior and Health, a drug policy think tank based in Rockville, Md., served as the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 1973 to 1978.

In college, DuPont said, “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.”

Students who abuse alcohol or drugs have higher dropout rates and lower grades, DuPont said. But once students get into recovery, he said, “it’s stunning how many were failing before and are now getting A’s.”

Bingeing problem

As Ryan learned all too well, university campuses are centers of hardcore partying. More than 35 percent of American college students say they have had more than five drinks in one sitting in the past two weeks, compared with 29 percent of non-college peers; 43 percent of college students say they’ve been drunk in the past month, compared with 34 percent of non-college peers. Daily marijuana use among full-time college students – almost 6 percent, according to one study – has more than tripled in the past 20 years, and cocaine use is on the rise.

A decade ago, most college students with substance-abuse problems had little help besides student health services and local Alcoholics Anonymous chapters. That’s changing. Today, roughly 150 colleges and universities in 49 states offer recovery programs, providing students with counseling, community and activities on campus.

In the late 1970s, a Rutgers student who had been drinking fell out of the bleachers at a football game and was paralyzed. The tragedy prompted the school to conduct a survey of student drinking. Officials found that the problem was much more pervasive than they had thought, said Lisa Laitman, director of the university’s Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program.

In 1983, the university hired Laitman to create a recovery program. She was the lone alcohol counselor for 50,000 students spread across the school’s three campuses. Gradually, more staff was hired. Within a few years, at Laitman’s urging, the school opened its first Recovery House on the New Brunswick campus.

“My students in recovery were living in regular dorms and they didn’t have any support. They felt really isolated and alone,” Laitman said.

Today, both the New Brunswick and Newark campuses offer sober housing. About 30 students live in the New Brunswick dorm, while four live in the Newark dorm. To live in the dorms, students must have been sober for at least 90 days.

Many students transfer to Rutgers with the purpose of joining the school’s recovery program and living in a sober dorm, Laitman said. To try to ensure they would be a good fit, prospective students must interview with counselors and current dorm residents. Once accepted into the program, students are required to attend at least two 12-step meetings a week. Students are also encouraged to participate in the center’s extracurricular activities.

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