UK universities have their heads in the sand on student addiction - in Times Higher Education

HEART Ambassadors, Suzi Gage and Shahroo Izadi, discuss how isolation and shame pose big risks to recovery from addiction problems, yet on-campus support programmes remain rare in the UK.

The following article was originally published on the Times Higher Education website, on October 7 2021.

As professionals working in the field of addiction, we’re acutely aware that sufficient understanding and ongoing support with recovery is lacking in higher education settings.

There could be many reasons for this. However, when considering the wider conversation about mental health, the absence of specific support and discussion around addiction problems is striking. We talk about so many other mental health issues, so why do we find it so hard to acknowledge this one, especially as it’s an issue that affects many current and prospective students?

One possible answer is that universities are concerned that by acknowledging students in recovery, they are acknowledging a drug and alcohol problem on their campus – but this really couldn’t be further from the truth.

Students starting their first year of university undergo a significant shift in lifestyle that can be both challenging and exhilarating. However, following the pandemic, second- and even third-year students are also still acclimatising to university life. It’s a pivotal moment for so many − and one that’s compounded by exam stresses, money worries, new social circles and much more.

  •  There’s currently a clear lack of quality information about substance use among students. Yes, we have some (limited) survey responses, but these are not necessarily representative because, due to a change in address when moving to university, many students are falling through the gaps.

What we do know is that students have had a particularly rough time of it lately, and research from the charity Student Minds has shown that 74 per cent of students reported a negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic, while two-thirds said they often felt isolated or lonely.

We know that isolation and shame pose big risks to recovery from addiction problems. This includes a lack of support networks, yet on-campus recovery support programmes are rare in the UK. Additionally, student substance use is often seen as a harm reduction issue, but it’s important to remember that students in recovery might have a family history of addiction or a vulnerability of some kind.

Indeed, mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, who is working alongside us to support the launch of the new Higher Education and Recovery Talk (Heart) digital platform – a national support initiative for students that provides advice, guidance and peer support − has found through her research that many prospective students have fears around not being able to practise abstinence or moderation when it comes to alcohol consumption in a university setting.

In the US, there are currently more than 150 collegiate recovery programmes (CRPs) in universities providing specific support to students. In the UK there are two – at Teesside University and the University of Birmingham. And we currently have fewer than 10 sober societies in student unions around the country.

A collegiate recovery programme supports students in their recovery through drop-in services, peer support meetings, the creation of abstinent social activities and, often, opportunities for voluntary and community engagement. The establishment of a CRP also creates a network of abstinent friendships – the kind of supportive peer community that is essential for recovery.

Teesside University was the first to launch a CRP in the UK. It is run as a partnership with Recovery Connections, which employs a dedicated “campus recovery co-ordinator” with lived experience and a regular on-campus presence. 

Of course, for this to be effective, a CRP needs to be sufficiently promoted by universities − so if management believes there’s a stigma around the need for addiction support, it will be impossible to reach the many students who need such support.

The work at the University of Birmingham is led by another Heart ambassador: the government’s “national recovery champion”, Dr Ed Day. The project has reported that more than a third of CRP members say they would not be at university without the CRP, and 20 per cent would not have attended their present university. This means that in addition to ongoing recovery, relapse prevention and improving educational outcomes for students in recovery, there are clear business benefits to implementing and promoting recovery support services and networks.

Recovery is something that students should be proud of – but the onus shouldn’t be on them to create the much-needed culture change. Universities need to lead the way, showing their commitment to supporting students in recovery and demonstrating that addiction problems are nothing to be ashamed of.

Students who can proudly nurture and develop their recovery openly at university acquire an enormous amount of wisdom and tools for personal development that are relevant to helping the entire student body to thrive.

There is clearly a bigger holistic picture when it comes to student well-being and, for students in recovery, specific support services are just one part of the jigsaw. But if we don’t even acknowledge that need, if we don’t provide the relevant services, that gap in provision could reduce the impact of other holistic services.

We need to face the issue head-on. And in order to do that, we have to be able to name it.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash