Staying sober in college: Student sobriety is a growing trend


Approximately 21 percent of the young adult population between age 18 and 21 meet the criteria for substance abuse disorders (SAMHSA) and a great many more indulge in risky substance-related behavior. The collegiate community is a fertile ground for supporting students in recovery and reaching out to other students who realize they need help.

More young people are getting and staying clean and sober than ever before. In addition, more youth are choosing not to drink or use drugs at all, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2014 Monitoring the Future Survey. These trends are great news for those recovering from substance use disorders and planning to attend college. Many more options now exist for students who realize that sobriety must come first.

Sober campuses

Each individual school has a unique culture. The Princeton Review publishes the top party colleges and the top sober colleges on its website and updates it annually. Other websites also rank college campuses in a similar fashion. Even schools that are not on the list may have a reputation as a party school or a dry campus.

Drug and alcohol policies also vary among institutions of higher learning. Military and religious colleges are generally stricter. Some schools, like West Point, randomly drug test all students. Others have strict honor codes regarding on-campus behavior, such as Brigham Young University, where policy and honor code penalties range from probation to immediate dismissal and criminal prosecution.

The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) is a network of professionals, administrators, faculty, staff, students, parents and policymakers who have made a big difference for recovering students by starting the Collegiate Recovery Program, which is discussed further below. The ARHE also provides the education, resources and community connection that recovering students need and is a good place to start to gather answers, information and resources.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the school or university administration to provide a safe environment for its students. This includes enforcement of drug and alcohol policies and provision of adequate support structure for students who choose a clean and sober lifestyle. College students are adults, however, and part of living sober is maintaining one’s recovery program and avoiding dangerous situations.

Many prospective students in recovery only consider schools with strict drug and alcohol policies, “dry” campuses, and schools with Collegiate Recovery Programs in place.

Sober housing

Many colleges now offer identity-based housing, such as by gender, ethnicity, LGBT or “sub-free” (no drugs or alcohol in residence). Off-campus sober living homes provide even more structure and accountability. For those not yet ready to transition to college campus life, online courses can be taken from a safe environment either from home or a sober-living house.

Social life

The social life one builds in college is extremely important. College life is notorious for wild underage drinking, drugs, sex and excess of everything. Peer relationships are still very important and peer pressure remains an issue. Establishing oneself in the sober community will help tremendously, whether living on or off campus.

Other activities   

Extracurricular sports, clubs and other interest groups can easily use up any extra time a student might have as well as offer opportunities for personal growth. Daily exercise in any form is an integral part of any recovery program, maintains health and prevents sleep-related disorders. Some students find part-time employment while in school, offering them a bit more financial freedom. The stress and benefits of working while taking classes should be considered carefully. Busy is good, but too much pressure is not.

Support groups

The Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) now has 135 communities on campuses all over the country and over 200 more in the works. Still, this is only a small percentage of the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. today. A CRP is a supportive environment within the campus culture that reinforces the decision to disengage from addictive behavior. It is designed to provide an educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other.

Participation in a 12-step recovery program has been shown to be related to long-term sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have meetings on college campuses all over the country and the world. These meetings provide support to those recovering through a 12-step program. Teen Anon is also based on the 12 steps, but provides more structure for teenagers and young adults. If there is no 12-step meeting available to fit a need, members are encouraged to start one. Starting a new meeting is a relatively simple process and most quickly grow in attendance and become permanent.

Local recovery clubs might exist on campus. These will often be posted on student websites or bulletin boards in the campus student center. Sober residences might offer group gatherings. Groups of friends within a local recovery community sometimes start their own clubs around a common interest, such as sober skiers, ballroom dancing, book clubs, etc.

It can be done

Thorough research and proper planning can help ensure a safe college experience for students recovering from substance use disorders. Finding other recovering students is a key element for success. Obstacles are inevitable, as many social circles on campus are structured around excessive alcohol use. Recreational drugs and performance-enhancing drugs are also common on campus. Wise school selection, careful planning of daily schedule including recovery support and exercise, and engagement in the sober community will all help to ensure success.

At White River Academy, education and life planning are emphasized, while keeping sobriety as the first priority. Boys with mental health and behavioral problems and their families find recovery and renewal while receiving an excellent education and guidance counseling. Though it is challenging to stay sober during college, White River Academy makes sure that all graduates are well-prepared and connected for success. For more information about White River Academy, please call 866-520-0905.

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