Substance use among college students is prevalent: In 2015, one in seven full-time college students aged 18 to 22 (14.6 percent) met the criteria for a substance use disorder (SAMHSA, 2019). That’s why programs like WSU’s Collegiate Recovery program are vital to behavioral health efforts on campuses.

In 2020, Washington State Health Care Authority provided a $500,000 grant to Washington State University’s Cougar Health Services. The grant helps colleges and universities across the state strengthen support for students in recovery from alcohol and drug use. As part of WRA’s mission to create public understanding around behavioral health and recovery, we met with Jon Wallis, Project Coordinator and co-founder of the student organization Cougs for Recovery, to talk about the importance of Collegiate Recovery and how a harm reduction framework creates a more inclusive and compassionate environment on campus. These programs make a difference on campus because they shape the way we learn, changing the stigma and narrative around recovery – and they’re an important resource that should be available on more campuses in Washington.

“It’s a different recovery. A place where people have options.”

Jon Wallis, Project Coordinator, Cougs for Recovery

What is a Collegiate Recovery Program?

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

Foundational Pillars of Collegiate Recovery

  • Health: Learning to overcome, manage, or more successfully live with symptoms and making healthy choices that support one’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Purpose: Meaningful daily activities, such as a job, volunteer work, or creative endeavors; increased ability to lead a self-directed life; and meaningful engagement in society.
  • Community: Relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, hope and engagement in the broader community.
  • Academics: Progress toward successful academic and professional pursuits, which support one’s ability to lead a self-directed life, physical and emotional wellbeing, and meaningful engagement in society. 

WRA: What would you like people to know about Collegiate Recovery? 

Jon: “This is a resource on campus. The fact that it exists on campus. It is a place where students don’t have to sacrifice their recovery to get an education. Collegiate Recovery is a safe place where students can find a community of like minded individuals who are coexisting in a place where they can share in one anothers recovery. And it’s not always about abstinence. A harm reduction framework can be beneficial and exist in a campus setting. Those who are abstinent and those who are reducing their use can coexist.”

It is important to note Collegiate Recovery is not treatment, but a community to support recovery, whatever that may look like for the person. 

WRA: What are the barriers to stay in recovery within colleges?

Jon: Some barriers that are not unique to students being in recovery, are the financial aspect of things. Housing is a primary barrier-those who are abstinent, or reducing their use etc., and campus culture. It is difficult depending where someone is, the party lifestyle may be more entrenched on campus.”

WRA: What kind of policies are in place in higher education? Both barriers and things that help promote collegiate recovery spaces. 

Jon: Student conduct and punishing students for substance use and University sanction. Sometimes it is helpful to have consequences, and sometimes it results in them leaving the University when there could have been an opportunity to bring them into a continuum of care (eg., rec center, counseling services, collegiate recovery).

Other barriers included funding. This is another example of how  crucial it is for constituents to reach out to their representatives in their district to talk about what matters to them. Our community’s voice can be a powerful tool for change and Jon echoes this, adding “if you are at a college and you think this should be a resource, tell your representative. Many representatives don’t know about this. Reaching out and being an advocate. A unique thing about collegiate recovery is that people are more outspoken about recovery status. These voices are useful.”

WRA: What are helpful resources? How can people get involved?

Jon: The WRA is a helpful resource, ARHE, C4 Innovations , HECAOD , and WSU’s  Cougar Health Services. People can get involved by joining WSU Cougs for Recovery  Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or reaching out to legislators, dean of students, counseling services and state the need for recovery on campus. People can go to conferences that are put on by ARHE. The grant web page is a good place to know about any conferences, webinars, etc.

WRA: What is WSU currently working on? Upcoming events for the summer?

Jon: We will be using some of the funds that are part of the grant to start an art and recovery program. There is a grad student who is a member and she is leading an art studio. In the fall, there will be weekly recovery meetings. These are all inclusive, whatever recovery background, non-denominational recovery meetings. And pinning down housing will be a priority along with getting a designated space on campus.

WRA: What is collegiate recovery to YOU?

Jon: For me, there are alot of legit reasons why sobriety or recovery are challenging, but the college providing the resources that helps someone enter recovery for the first time, or transition into different circumstances, creates a space where people’s needs are met and we’re meeting them where they’re at.

There are many pathways to recovery and the pathways are unique to the individual. Collegiate Recovery programs add another path for people seeking recovery.

For more information or questions about WSU’s Collegiate Recovery, please contact Patricia Maarhuis(CO-PI) at maarhuis@wsu.edu or Jon Wallis (Project Coordinator) at jonathan.wallis@wsu.edu.