Recovery U: College Students Returning to School After Treatment Face Unique Challenges

Addiction is a disease that everyone handles differently. The same is true for students who are returning to school after treatment. 


Whether it’s high school or college, the transition back to school can be very difficult for young people recovering from a substance use disorder (SUD) and their families. To give these students the best chance to succeed, it’s important to understand the challenges they will face and what they can do to overcome them. 


It May Be Tough, but You Are Not Alone


Substance use is prevalent on most college campuses, which complicates the picture for students who are trying to maintain a sober lifestyle. In fact, using the word “prevalent” may be an understatement. 


Collegiate culture is often tied to binge drinking, keg parties, rowdy tailgates before sporting events, drug use, and other risky behavior—and unfortunately, there is a lot of truth behind the image. A 2017 study conducted by Northwestern University shows the extent of substance use among full-time college students:


  • 2.7 million students reported binge alcohol use
  • 1.8 million students reported use of an illicit drug
  • 733,000 students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder
  • 487,000 students met the criteria for an illicit drug use disorder


It may seem hopeless to think of re-entering an environment like this after completing treatment. But it can be done—in 2019, an estimated 840,000 full-time U.S. college students who attended college were in recovery. With guidance, you can develop the tools you need to handle this transition successfully.


The Most Common Challenges


A college campus can be overwhelming for any student, much less one who is recovering from a SUD. There are a number of challenges that all students will face, from making new friends to meeting class requirements. Many students are away from home for the first time and must adjust to living on their own, taking responsibility for their study habits, and managing their schoolwork. The peer pressure to drink alcohol or use drugs can be intense. When you add these common dynamics, it’s easy to understand why it may be difficult for a student with a SUD to maintain a lifestyle of recovery. 


While each person is different, there are specific challenges that students in recovery are likely to face as well. According to Dr. Eric Beeson, a core faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern, the challenges these students face most often include:


  • Explaining the academic and legal consequences of past actions
  • Transitioning from a treatment setting to an academic setting
  • Disclosing recovery status to faculty and friends
  • Developing recovery support on or near campus
  • Balancing identity as a student and as a person in recovery
  • Finding recovery-friendly social activities
  • Managing triggers and peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs
  • Relearning life skills, such as time management and budgeting
  • Navigating stigma surrounding SUDs and recovery


This list may seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to fight this battle by yourself. Our team at LifeTutors is here to help you or your loved one develop a plan and face each of these challenges head-on, so you can go back to school and take the next step to living well.


A Network of Support


One very important part of recovery is having a strong network of support. It’s likely that some of the people in your support network have been through the same experience and completed their college degrees while they were in recovery. You can learn a lot from them by reaching out and asking questions. You can also learn a lot by talking to people who were NOT successful, so you don’t make the same mistakes. 


Students in recovery are constantly exposed to triggers that could hinder not only their sobriety but their academic success as well. Living in a substance-free environment with a supportive community can decrease your stress and minimize those triggers. Some colleges do offer substance-free housing for students in recovery. But if those options are not available, finding roommates who are also living substance-free can be an excellent alternative.


A growing number of colleges have gone a step further and developed collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) to support students who are recovering from addiction. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education currently maintains a database of more than 140 CRC programs across the country that offer counseling, substance-free housing, sober social events, and more. These programs are designed to create a community of support and accountability apart from the typical party culture of most colleges. And it’s working—initial studies show that CRCs help promote recovery, prevent relapse, and improve educational outcomes.


Don’t Ignore Your Mental Health


A vast majority of college students—whether they are in recovery or not—deal with mental health issues of some kind. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a whopping 80% of college students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. NAMI also reports that 50% have struggled with anxiety and as a result suffered at school and 50% rate their mental health status as below average or poor. 


College is a high-pressure environment and going through it with a SUD doesn’t make it any easier. Be sure to seek out counseling whenever needed, especially if you have existing mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. 


Take the Next Step


No one should have to choose between recovery and a college education. LifeTutors is a coaching program that helps young adults transition back into an independent life after treatment or transitional living. We work together with our clients and their families to help identify the appropriate learning and work environment suited to their goals, interests, and capabilities. Once we develop the LifePlan, our coaches help them move through the challenges of finding work and completing school. 


Call 866-287-2877 to learn how our hands-on approach can get you back to school, back to work, and back to life. 


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