Top Down, Bottom Up: Building the Country’s First Integrated Collegiate Recovery Program


Taking a look back over the last 40 years, the landscape of the collegiate recovery field is littered with heroes and champions, the likes of which have guided minds such as myself through the process of building supports for students seeking, and in, long-term recovery. Names such as Harris, Laitman, Salmeri, Grahovac, and Kimbal echo through the mind as anyone would reflect on the amazing work that has been done to support students in higher education that are not only on a path of graduation, but on the path of recovery as well. Without these names, the platform which all programs build upon would never have been built, and they will be revered in our field for decades to come. The work done at Rutgers University, Texas Tech, and Augsburg College made sure that administrators at any school would have to listen to the inherent benefits that communities of recovery supports brought to their universities. These deeds of our field’s mentors and legends have led to more than a 150 collegiate recovery programs and community efforts being erected in the United States – a fraction of the total higher education institutions, but a number that should be celebrated nonetheless. We have come far in the 40+ years our field has been established, and it is time we go further.

As a student in recovery myself, it was amazing to see that recovery supports for substance use disorders had been enmeshed at colleges and universities in the country. I heard names of experts and programs such as those mentioned above, and was excited for a future that could encapsulate recovery and education, because as president of The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) Patrice Salmeri says, and rightly so, no one should have to choose between their recovery and an education. However, incredulous novice that I was, I could not believe that the field had yet to integrate mental health recovery and substance use disorder recovery into these vital programs. As a person in long-term recovery from a co-occurring disorder, this pained me to find. Now, this wasn’t a misstep to the curators of the field and practice – they built programs that didn’t exist and served a population that was marginalized and ill-served for many years, but it was clear that the time for an evolution of collegiate recovery had arrived.

Dr. Alexandre Laudet had shown in her most recent findings in 2014, that students had ancillary disorders at a rate of over 40% in the first nationwide study of collegiate recovery programs (Characteristics of Students Participating in Collegiate Recovery Programs: A National Survey Alexandre B. Laudet, Ph.D., Kitty Harris, Ph.D., Thomas Kimball, Ph.D., Ken C. Winters, Ph.D., D. Paul Moberg, Ph.D. Received: April 22, 2014; Received in revised form: November 7, 2014; Accepted: November 10, 2014; Published Online: November 20, 2014). Over 460 students had been surveyed amongst the major programs in the country, and the numbers were staggering. Dr. Laudet had shown that the call for integration of recovery supports and primary healthcare, into all types of programs was not necessary, but validated those that were beginning to do it. Roughly at the same time, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) began publically calling for integration of services. Behavioral health as a concept – one that receives differing reviews depending on the area of the country you are in and the people you are speaking with – was widely being touted as the wave of the future. Why then, has the collegiate recovery field as a whole been slow to adopt an approach of integration? A lack of research, and willingness to change, are the biggest obstacles to come; however, these are being overcome everyday as the model developed by the University of North Texas is being replicated and studied across the country.

When I arrived at the University of North Texas, recovery supports were nowhere to be found, outside of a singular staff at the Substance Abuse Resource Center (SARC). Timothy Trail was his name, and he was the acting director of SARC. I remember walking into his offices, with a general grasp of what a collegiate recovery community could look like, and that we had a responsibility to build one to help the students I knew existed alongside me at the University. Luckily, Tim (and his graduate assistant, Sage Ann Garber) believed in what I had excitedly said in his office those first few weeks, and soon, we had our first peer support meeting at the University. In and of itself, this was not the program we have today at the University of North Texas, but it was this bottom-up mentality that would help guide our all-inclusive philosophy for the future. Over the course of the next 6 months, myself, Tim, Sage, and a handful of students we had recruited, used a grass-roots style approach to find other students in recovery, allies of recovery, professors and staff in recovery, and students who simply wanted to learn more about the recovery process. With this grass-roots student driven approach, where students in self-identified recovery from an addiction, a mental health disorder, or any other quality of life concern could come to find a supportive community, we quickly had amassed a fellowship of over 400 students. With the sheer size of the community and a $10,000 seed grant from Transforming Youth Recovery, it was not hard to begin to receive the attention of the upper administration and president’s office at the University. By utilizing advocacy trainings, which we had implemented from Young People in Recovery, we were able to curate champions within the Dean of Students Office (thank you Dean Moe McGuiness for everything), the Student Health and Wellness Center (Dr. Theresa McKinney forever has our gratitude), the Vice President of Student Affairs (Dr. With can never be replaced), and perhaps most importantly, the President of the University himself (thank you President Smatresk for believing). It was equally important when we advocated for our program, that we were not simply advocating for recovery supports from substance use disorders but that we also included mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and process addictions such as disordered eating and sex addiction. With mental health concerns and substance use disorders taking the 3rd and 4th cause of withdrawals from the university, the administration believed in an all-inclusive approach to recovery supports because it aligned with the bold goals they had themselves of supporting students to stay in school and successfully graduate.

With these wonderful allies on our side, we successfully had implemented a bottom-up (student driven force) and top-down (administrative champions) approach that would create wrap-around services at the university. We had built a vast peer-support community that allowed students to come as they were, whether in recovery or seeking recovery, as an ally, or as a vested stakeholder. We knew that peer supports were beneficial for any type of recovery (e.g. substance use disorder or mental health recovery), but we also knew that clinical supports were necessary to build a truly integrated behavioral health program. These clinical supports could not be had, until we had full university support – which came in September of 2014. With then Provost Warren Burggren signing the collegiate recovery program to existence, came the true work of not only harboring an all-inclusive peer recovery community, but building out the integrated program that would allow us to serve all types of students at the University.

Over the next 4 months, we put into place what industry experts and our own internal team, knew to be the best mechanism for students in recovery success. As we had created a home for students of any type of recovery, and had students that were dealing with disordered eating, addiction, autism spectrum disorders, substance use disorders, sexual disorders, gambling disorders, and a plethora of other issues in our program, we knew that we must create a holistic peer and clinical driven program. For us, that looks like a vibrant 840+ person peer community that still to this day allows all to join, as our phase 1 of the collegiate recovery program. Phase 2 is where our CRP truly exists, with students committing to abstinence and receiving a myriad of peer and clinical supports and resources. From licensed professional counselors and chemical dependency counselors providing one on one weekly support, recovery case managers providing support across 13-domains of wellness in Young Adult Recovery and Education Plans, on-site nutritionist, peer recovery coaches, a 48-bed recovery residence hall, on-site psychiatrist, and access to the entire counseling team of the University, we truly have built a long-term aftercare program for any student in recovery – not only chemical dependency recovery, but recovery from anything and everything. We realize that all students in or seeking recovery are different – we meet them where they are, and provide for them the services they need to be successful academically, emotionally, and professionally.

This program to us feels like home. It is based in our true philosophy of helping any student that asks for it, and we believe it answers to call that Dr. Laudet made in her most recent research, and that SAMHSA has pushed for in this country. However, the grand experiment is not just an experiment anymore. As we published our first round of research on our integrated model in 2015 for the American Psychological Association Convention, we had reassuring results. 95% of students in our program that identified as having a primary substance use disorder felt that the UNT CRP adequately supported their recovery, and that the peer supportive services followed by counseling services were the most beneficial to them. 92% of students in our program that identified as having a primary mental health disorder felt that the UNT CRP adequately supported their recovery, and that counseling services followed by the peer supportive services were the most beneficial to them (Holtz, P., Ashford, R., Martinez-Kaigi, V., & Callahan, J. (2015, August 8). Collegiate recovery programs and social support as resources for university students in long-term recovery. American Psychological Association Convention, Toronto, Canada). With a 2% reoccurrence of use rate, a 93.3% satisfaction rating, 17 program alumni, 22 enrolled in phase 2, and 840+ in phase 1 – the integration experiment is no longer an experiment for us – it is the only way to operate.

The University of North Texas believes in us more than ever, having recently elected to support our program with a $128,000 operating budget via student service fees. We have worked with programs at The George Washington University, Florida Atlantic University, and most recently the University of Utah to replicate this model of all-inclusive integration. George Mason University has most recently switched to this nitrated model, and Georgetown as well as the University of Delaware are both strongly considering it. We have research that shows recovery supports for all types of behavioral health concerns can be facilitated in a single program, and that students can and will be successful. The future of collegiate recovery is here, and for us, that future is holistic supports and integrated programs. No student in recovery, from anything, should have to choose between their recovery and an education. At the University of North Texas, we are making sure that rings true every single day.

(For more information about the UNT collegiate recovery program – visit http://recovery.unt.edu/ or e-mail recovery@unt.edu)


About Robert Ashford

Robert Ashford is an advocate that founded #RightsForRecovery in 2014. Now a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, Robert lives to inspire social change through empower people to find their voice on a daily basis!

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