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Recovery Support For College Students New, But Growing

Susie 2020.jpg
Photo courtesy of Susie Mullens
Photo courtesy of Susie Mullens
Susie Mullens has been working with those in recovery for 30 years. She was named the National Collegiate Recovery Advocate of the Year in 2021.

In 2019, more than 800,000 college students were recovering from a substance use disorder according to some estimates.

Collegiate recovery programs in West Virginia are still new, but their presence is growing. Nationwide, about 4 percent of campuses have a recovery support program. But 25 percent of colleges in West Virginia have one already.

Susie Mullens has 30 years of experience counseling those in recovery. She helped start the first campus recovery program in the state at West Virginia University in 2015. Now she is the program coordinator for the West Virginia Collegiate Recovery Network. Mullens was recently recognized as the national Collegiate Recovery Advocate of the Year for 2021.

Appalachia Health News reporter June Leffler spoke with Mullens.

Leffler: At campuses that have collegiate recovery programs, what are the typical support systems in place?

Mullens: So we have had 11 schools in West Virginia out of 44 with a program. And that doesn't include specific trade schools or junior colleges. Typical supports are peer support services, recovery oriented programming. Some of our schools also offer scholarships.

Leffler: What else would you like to see happen in colleges across the state?

Mullens: So my dream is to see every school in our state offer collegiate recovery, and recovery support services, and to really dedicate resources to institutionalize programs. And what that means is, you know, to really commit to having these programs have a long life. We know that it takes probably five years to really get a program up and going. And most of our programs are definitely not five years old. The only one that is probably five years old is WVU. So it's a long range plan. There are two things that I would like to see all schools embrace. And that is making the naloxone readily available, like in the residence halls. And then reevaluating policies, including medical amnesty policies, to encourage people to seek treatment and to let them know that when they have completed treatment, that their education is still an option. And that the schools will support them with the transition to treatment and with the transition back to being a student.

Leffler: Some recovery advocates might describe the college campus as a place that is hostile to recovery. What challenges do those in recovery face in a campus environment.

Mullens: It's a small number of students who misuse substances and a small number of students that develop problems with their use. But what we find is when we ask people later, when they get into recovery, when did their use become out of control, and a lot of times they'll cite during their college years. And then you know, we have various events that are promoted, even kind of after hours, educational events are promoted using substance oriented language. There was a series that I attended a couple of years ago. Not only was it held in a bar, it was called the “absinthe-minded professor.” I think that, culturally, there are a lot of things that need to be looked at with much more sensitivity, and to look at this in terms of discrimination, inclusion and equity. Because people in recovery deserve to be able to have a safe environment to pursue their educational goals.

Leffler: Despite these challenges, what is the value of attending college for those in recovery? And what is the value to universities to support and retain these students?

Mullens: For colleges that have a CRP, the students that participate in those collegiate recovery programs have higher retention rates, have higher graduation rates, and have higher grade point averages. So those are some benefits, both to the school and to the individual. I think another benefit to the school is the environment is much richer and more reflective of society in general. So it's really a tremendous benefit to the school. If you asked an administrator what their ideal student would be, they're probably going to say somebody who has a high grade point average, and somebody who's gonna stay and complete school. And what we know from the research, that describes these students.

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