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How to Stay Sober in Your First Year of College

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Most people in the U.S. see the college years as a period of life when it’s okay to experiment with alcohol and drugs. In fact, most people think it’s normal. Most people also think it’s normal that a college student, away from the watchful eyes of their parents and neighbors for the first time, might go overboard with drinking. They might even try marijuana and smoke more than occasionally for a few months – and most people think that’s nothing to worry too much about.

College creates an atmosphere where all this can happen without significant consequences. College kids caught drinking under the legal age or in possession of marijuana often avoid serious punishment. A stern warning, no arrests, and no criminal record. Authorities overlook, ignore, or quickly forgive extreme behavior such as binge drinking. Campus police, administrators, and parents write off these incidents as youthful indiscretions. They consider them par for the course for college students.

For a large majority of freshmen entering college this year, the permissive environment common to most college campuses is not an issue. It’s actually part of why they’re going to college, and something they look forward to. They want to party, get out of control, maybe get in trouble, then rein it all back in before they graduate and enter the working world.

There’s a subset of rising freshmen, however, who are wise to see this permissive environment as a recipe for disaster.

Who’s in this subset?

The rising freshmen in recovery from alcohol and/or substance use disorders.

Freshman Year: A Minefield for People in Recovery

This NIAA College Fact Sheet quantifies the patterns of alcohol and drug behavior we discuss above. The facts about alcohol use among college students are difficult to ignore:

  • Almost 67% who say they drink at least once a month also say they engage in binge drinking
  • Binge drinkers who drink at least three times a week are six times more likely to perform poorly on tests because of alcohol, and five times more likely to skip a class because of alcohol
  • Roughly 25% of college students report alcohol negatively impacts their academic performance
  • About 20% of college students meet the established criteria for an AUD.

That’s what freshmen in recovery have to face when they go off to school: an environment where excessive alcohol and drug use is the norm, and virtually all social activities – even those that nominally include only people below the drinking age – revolve around alcohol.

If you’re in this subset of people, don’t despair: the world is changing. Not every single college student smokes weed and drinks alcohol. Quite the contrary. For over four decades, there’s been a phenomenon slowly gathering momentum on college campuses around the country. It now has a name, a parent organization, and a set of best practices.

Collegiate Recovery: Gaining Ground

Informally, people call it The Collegiate Recovery Movement. The related programs are called – formally – either Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) or Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRCs). The organization that has taken formal ownership of the movement is called The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE).

Their mission statement, in part, reads:

“ARHE provides the education, resources, and community connection needed to help change the trajectory of recovering student’s lives.”

And here’s how they define a Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP):

“A collegiate recovery program is a college or university provided, supportive environment within the campus culture that reinforces the decision to engage in a lifestyle of recovery from substance use. It is designed to provide an educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure that students to not have to sacrifice one for the other.”

This is exactly what rising freshmen in recovery need as they make the transition from high school to college. Stress-based triggers that can lead to relapse lurk around every corner. Leaving home for the first time, challenging academics, the new shape of interpersonal and romantic relationships, financial aid – all these things are enough to challenge any stress-management and coping techniques. For an eighteen-year-old whose brain is still developing, while at the same time recovering from an alcohol or substance use disorder, the combination of these external stressors make the first semester of college a tricky time to navigate.

How to Find a School With A Real CRP or CRC

To find a school with an official CRP or CRC recognized by ARHE, click this link.

More than 150 colleges and universities across the country provide recovery support for enrolled students. Once you find a school that matches your needs, reach out. Talk to someone involved in the administration of the recovery program. It doesn’t matter if they’re a student, faculty advisor, or clinical staff. Make the effort to talk to a human. Find out all the details you can. Each CRP or CRC should include academic support, crisis management, relapse prevention, and community support resources. If they don’t offer those basic services, move on – you can find a school that does. If you can’t reach someone at the program you’re interested in, you can contact ARHE here, and they’ll do their best to help you.

Also, of the 150 schools that offer recovery services for students, more than 50 have sober dorms or alternative sober housing available for students who want to live in an optimal recovery environment.

Find Your School

If you’re a rising freshman worried about your sobriety, you’re absolutely right to be concerned. The college environment lends itself to relapse. But you can take control of your year, you can set yourself up for success. You can create a sobriety plan for your first year that increases your chances of making it through with your sobriety intact. Your plan can include every last detail. From counseling appointments to community support meetings to choosing your roommate in a sober living environment, you get to decide. You don’t have to choose between your recovery and getting a college education: with planning, research, and the resources we provide in this post, you can have both.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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