Supporting Virtual Collegiate Recovery in the Era of COVID-19

Prioritizing A Holistic Approach to Collegiate Recovery

Part one of this series on virtual collegiate recovery focused on prioritizing the creation of online support groups and informal social connections. A place to hang out when it is wanted and most needed, connection with like-minded and similarly experienced peers – these are crucial elements to the community aspect of recovery. However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose of creating community for those in recovery is to reduce the likelihood of relapse.

As with many chronic and progressive illnesses, relapse can often be part of the recovery process. Research has identified that ongoing 12-Step meeting attendance, management of emotions and stress, recognizing triggers, and being aware of warning signs are all important to preventing emotional and physical relapse.

Part two will explore this more nuanced understanding of what students need to support their collegiate recovery, particularly how a holistic approach can be central to preventing relapse.

Holistic Collegiate Recovery

The notion of a holistic collegiate recovery program is based on consideration for the entire person. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recovery is defined as “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential”, and must include four areas of focus: health, purpose, home, and community. Similarly, the Betty Ford Institute views recovery as a “voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.

Considering either of these definitions as the long term aim of sobriety, what needs to be in place for your students while they are away from campus during the COVID-19 pandemic? For example, a student may have had a stable living situation while enrolled and living on campus. Does that stability still exist now that campuses are closed? How will students return to college campuses? What about commuter and adult learners? Although they may not have had to relocate, the impact of the stay at home requirements may be disruptive to their homelife stability as well. In either case, what are the alternative options for providing that stability?

Returning to campus?

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Providing Collegiate Recovery Away from Campus

Other questions arise around viable health insurance, access to medical and mental health services. While on campus, many students could access these services for minimal or no charge. But many campuses are struggling to continue providing their collegiate recovery program as staff become furloughed and professional licensing restrictions limit the types of services that counseling centers can offer to their students when they aren’t physically present on campus.

For some, Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC) may be the answer. These coordinated networks of community-based services utilize the combined strengths of individuals, families, and communities to support wellness, and ensure quality of life for those in recovery. As students become less tied to the campus and more tied to their community, these types of online resources may become an important part of their health and wellness infrastructure.

In addition, identifying individual factors related to flourishing, recovery capital, and wellness are critical aspects of recovery resilience, and allow an individual to work toward sustained and long-term recovery. Tools like the PERMA, the Recovery Capital Index, the Advance Warning of Relapse tool, and the wellness index are helpful self-assessment tools that can be used to help campuses work with students to identify any specific challenges they are facing as a result of the current disruption.

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Lastly, any staff or students who have regular, ongoing contact with those in recovery should be especially vigilant about co-occurring disorders. As length of sobriety increases, issues that had been mediated through substance use become more apparent. Relationship issues, mental health and wellbeing, pain management, and a myriad of other co-occurring disorders may come to the forefront, particularly given the heightened potential for increased stressors and triggers.

What Campuses Can Do to Improve Holistic Collegiate Recovery

Have resources at the ready for students in recovery. Case studies, first-person narratives, tools, and live chats help address recovery issues in a “just in time” manner. Recognizing that there is a natural continuum from problem recognition, to abstinence, to sobriety and recovery is critical. Providing problem-solving techniques for each stage of the continuum and each aspect of a holistic collegiate recovery plan will be central to their ability to manage and sustain their recovery in the midst of the current challenges.

  1. Utilize Resources. The Association for Recovery in Higher Education is an important resource for identifying programs that may work for your campus and population. Rather than thinking about an “off the shelf” model and simply replicating what you read about, think about what modifications may be important for those you will be serving.
  2. Read and Explore. Blogs that are topical in nature provide an opportunity to address barriers to sobriety from a narrative and evidenced informed perspective, using a case study format to illustrate the way in which those in recovery adopt effective practice in their lives to bolster recovery and prevent relapse.
  3. Share Helpful Tools. In addition to the tools mentioned previously, online resources like the Bill White Recovery Capital scale may be added to websites as web forms for those in recovery to access as a way of creating helpful and realistic goals to help sustain and strengthen their recovery.
  4. Facilitate Real-Time Coaching. Recovery resiliency occurs when those skills mastered in recovery are used in a nimble manner. Such skills are best practiced as part of a coaching, mentoring, or sponsorship relationship. Telemedicine, E-therapy, and other venues such as Zoom, allow for real-time coaching, aftercare planning, and other tasks which require direct contact for success.

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