Students, addiction specialists call for culture shift on alcohol, drug addiction

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 4:06pm

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Infographic by Roseanne Chao

David, a Social Work student at the University of Michigan, tried Vicodin for the first time when he was 17. 

“I’ve never felt this good in my life,” David, who requested his last name remain anonymous, said.

His doctor prescribed him the drug in order to alleviate any pain he may feel after undergoing a wisdom tooth surgery. The next year, after a lacrosse injury at the University of Georgia, a doctor prescribed him the drug again. When Vicodin didn’t suffice, his doctors prescribed Percocet. After one month of taking the prescription pain medication, he was addicted.

“I ended up taking it for about a month and tried to stop, (but) it’s pretty addicting,” David said. “Then I started buying (opioids) from the streets from friends, and eventually started writing fake prescriptions so I could get more.”

When David started graduate school at the University, he reached out to the Collegiate Recovery Program, a support service for students who are recovering from alcohol and drug addiction that has branches at universities throughout the country. The University chapter, run single-handedly by Program Manager Matt Statman, seeks to help students in recovery do well in school and enjoy their time at the University without alcohol or drugs. 

Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Julia, who requested her name be changed to remain anonymous, struggled with alcohol addiction in middle school and high school and described the program as “crucial” in aiding students with finding community outside of college drinking culture.

“I think it was because it was hard for me to find a way to connect with people in my dorm socially because so much of it was bonding over partying, or rushing or stuff like that, and I had no interest in either of those,” Julia said. “CRP was really crucial in a social way for me to be able to find people who I had something in common with and were pursuing the same things that I was.”

Julia started drinking and smoking marijuana when she was 13 years old. Proudly calling herself a “weekend warrior,” she would spend the entire weekend drunk or high, but usually did not indulge during the week. However, after spending days in the hospital and threatening suicide, she joined a rehab program her senior year of high school. About seven months into the program, she said she “really wanted to get sober” after realizing the core of many of her problems was addiction.

Julia decided to take a gap year before starting school at the University, and while meeting with a voice teacher in Ann Arbor over the summer for a vocal lesson, she met up with Statman. She said acknowledging her addiction was crucial to her steps towards assistance.

I know people say, ‘I’m a person in recovery,’ just so people don’t get scared by the word alcoholic, but I’m an alcoholic,” Julia said.

According to Julia, one the largest obstacles CRP faces in attracting members is the stigmatization of addiction and recovery. CRP’s biweekly meetings average “around 20 members” with total membership consisting of 30 to 40 undergraduate and graduate students. However, with over 46,000 students at the University, she believes a lack of awareness about the program and its utility to those in recovery, along with the stigmatization of addiction, prevent students from joining.

“(The University tries) to push their mental health resources, but I think what is preventing more people from utilizing those resources is the nature of American college culture of heavy drinking and also the stigma associated with addiction,” Julia said. “(It’s) the idea that you can’t be an addict while you’re in college, or alcoholics are the homeless people who live on the streets in downtown Ann Arbor when in reality, it has so many more faces than we care to acknowledge.”

David echoed Julia’s sentiments and said he thinks the University should be more open to talking about recovery.

“Recovery needs to be more talked about at the University of Michigan because a lot of students don’t know what it is and have biases or stigmas against being in recovery or having an addiction problem,” David said.

A 2012 study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 40 million Americans over the age of 12 suffer from addiction to alcohol, nicotine or other drugs. The student also found only one in 10 of Americans who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, excluding nicotine, receive any form of treatment.

According to Wolverine Wellness Director Mary Jo Desprez, part of the problem may be that only certain kind of drugs are stigmatized.

“The words we say matter, and when you say, ‘I use a hard drug,’ that’s a stigmatizing category where, let’s just say somebody lives in an off-campus house who drinks a lot, they don’t get that same (stigmatization),” Desprez said.

Though the Collegiate Recovery Program serves people like David, who suffer from opioid addiction, the most common addiction that students struggle with in college is alcohol. According to the National College Health Assessment study conducted at the University in 2016, 46 percent of undergraduates exhibited high-risk drinking (defined as four drinks or more for females and five drinks or more for males), while only 9 percent of undergraduates used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.

Desprez said while an opiate crisis can be mirrored at the University, students are far likelier to be addicted to alcohol or other drugs such as marijuana and Adderall that are less stigmatized.

“If you’re seeing an opiate epidemic in society, it doesn’t show up the exact same way, but we’re not impervious to it,” Desprez said. “But on a college campus, the data has always really been clear that the number one drug of choice is alcohol, and not very far behind is marijuana, and then you have some of the study aid drugs, stimulant, misuse and things like that.”

The Collegiate Recovery Program does not provide treatment to those in recovery. Instead, it recommends that its members attend 12-step programs, programs pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous designed to help people through a therapeutic medium, and focuses on providing additional resources and support to students in recovery at the University.

Julia said CRP empowers participants to reflect and examine how individual actions can help fight addiction and the culture around these common addictions must shift to correctly address the epidemic.

“It’s not CRP’s responsibility to keep you sober,” Julia said. “It’s supposed to be something that supports you socially, supports you as a student in recovery, and can kind of tie up those loose ends that 12-step programs don’t directly address, but the person that’s going to keep you from relapsing, it’s yourself. You can’t depend on other people to keep you from relapsing.”