Heading Back to School: Top Tips to Thrive in Recovery

College student with books and backpack looking at camera
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It seems like summer gets shorter every year – and for people in recovery, returning to school is different than for most students.

School’s Back – And You Can Be Ready

It’s early August, and around the country, high school students are posting first-day-of-school pictures – well, their parents are – and college students are either packing up to head back to campus, finishing up summer abroad programs, working the last few shifts of their summer jobs, or already on campus, participating in new student orientation and other fun activities.

That’s all incredibly fun and exciting for everyone involved: parents, students, and school faculty and staff, too. The beginning of every school year – at any level – is a time of anticipation, of possibility, and of new beginnings.

For high school and college students in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD), it can also be something else. It can be a time of apprehension, concern, and possibly fear. Not about classes, grades, friends, deciding a major, clothes, or crushes: about staying in recovery during the new school year.

Whether recovery means total abstinence or something else, the first thing any young person in recovery returning to school this month or next is this:

You are not alone. You’re not alone in recovery in general, and you’re not alone in your position as a high school or college age student in recovery.

We have the data to prove it.

The Challenge of Recovery: How Many People Can Relate?

Data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2021 NSDUH) answer at question definitively: millions of people can relate.

But we get it, and we know: being in recovery can feel isolating and lonely. Virtually everyone in recovery feels that at some point, the same way everyone with AUD or SUD feels the pain of addiction. To prove you’re not alone, we’ll take a look at the real numbers on people with alcohol and/or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD).

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorder by Age Group: Facts and Figures

People With Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

  • Total: 29.5 million (10.6%)
    • 12-17: 894,000 (3.4%)
    • 18-25: 5 million (15.0%)
    • 26+: 23.6 million (10.7%)

People With Substance Use Disorder (SUD):

  • Total: 46.3 million (16.5%)
    • Age 12-17: 2.2 million (8.5%)
    • Age 18-25: 8.6 million (25.6%)
    • 26+: 35.5 million (16.1%)

High School Age People (14-18) With Alcohol Use Disorder/Substance Use Disorder (AUD/SUD):

  • SUD: 3.0 million
  • AUD: 1.2 million

College Age People (18-22) With Alcohol Use Disorder/Substance Use Disorder (AUD/SUD):

  • SUD: 1.6 million
  • AUD: 1.0 million

People in Recovery from AUD/SUD:

  • Total: 21.4 million (8.3%)
    • 12-17: n/a
    • 18-25: 1.6 million (4.8%)
    • 26+: 19.3 million (8.8%)

Those are the numbers: millions of people in the U.S. have an alcohol or substance use disorder – including high school and college age people. Millions of people in the U.S. are also in recovery from alcohol and substance use disorder – including over a million college age students, and while we don’t have data on people age 12-17 who report being in recovery, we do know that in 2021, two million people age 12-17 needed treatment for SUD, and close to 100,000 received treatment.

Tips for Staying in Recovery and On Your Program This Year

When we say “You are not alone” we mean it, and the data above proves it. Not being alone means there are others who are going what you’re going through, and others who’ve been through what you’re going through. That means they can share their experiences about what it was like to return to school for the first time while in recovery, and offer their tips and advice to you, so you can increase your chances of staying on your program, staying abstinent if that’s your goal, and above all, staying in recovery during the upcoming school year.

We’ve collected our top tips for people new in recovery or people with experience in recovery for navigating the back-to-school season with your recovery intact.

Top Tips: How to Thrive in Recovery This School Year

1. Make Goals

This might be the most important thing you can do. If you’re new in recovery, simply maintaining abstinence may be your goal. If so, write it down and make a list of things you need to do to achieve that goal. Hint: you can use our list to help you achieve your recovery goals. If you’ve had some years in recovery and your goal is to branch out and make new sober friends this year and socialize more, then write that down, along with a list of things you need to do to achieve that goal. Hint 2: this list can help with that, too.

2. Make a Plan

To stay on your program, stay sober, and meet your recovery goals, you need to make a plan. We mention that above, when we suggest you make lists that help you achieve your goals. This tip is slightly different. Before you go back to school – meaning now, today, soon – make a big-picture plan for how you’re going to achieve your recovery goals for the year. Hint 3: if you include the following tips on this list in your plan, you’ll increase your chances of sustaining recovery for the entire year.

3. Find a Local Counselor or Therapist

If you’re a high school student, your parents can do this. And if you don’t have an addiction counselor, consider asking them to find you one. If you’re a college student attending school away from home, we encourage you to ask for a referral from your current counselor or therapist for local support. For people who recently completed a treatment program, we recommend asking your peer support specialist or case manager for help finding professional support local to your school.

If you don’t know how to find a counselor or therapist, please visit this Find Support page maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Here’s something to consider as you plan. You may not need to speak to your counselor or therapist at all during the year – the support we suggest below may suffice. Think of this person as an emergency safety valve you can go to as needed. Set up an appointment at the beginning of the year, let them know who you are and what you might need, and then use them accordingly, as needed.

4. Find Local Community Support Meetings

By this we mean find the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), SMART Recovery, or the 12-step type community support model that works for you. If you’re a high school student in recovery, you should already know about the meetings in their area, but in case you don’t, read this article. If you’re a college student, here’s what to do:

  1. Go to the AA, NA, or appropriate website.
  2. Navigate to their “Find a Meeting” resource.
  3. Find meeting places and times.
  4. Compare them with your college course schedule and decide which meetings you’re going to go to and how often.
  5. Stick to the plan.

We advise doing this ahead of time because you may not find your sober community at your school right away, but you need to be on your program from the beginning. This way, you know you have support available to keep you on track before you find potential sources of support in your college community.

5. Find Resources at Your School

In 2023, colleges, universities, and institutions of higher learning are fully on board with the recovery movement. In fact, what we now call the Collegiate Recovery Movement began at Brown University over forty years ago. Today, the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) acts as a governing and certifying body for the increasing number of collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) nationwide. Here’s how ARHE defines a CRP:

“A Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) is a college or university-provided program that includes a supportive environment within the campus culture. CRPs reinforce the decision to engage in a lifestyle of recovery from addiction/substance use disorder. It is designed to provide an educational opportunity alongside recovery supports to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other.”

CRPs recognized by the ARHE share the following components:

  • Academic Assistance. Counselors, academic advisors, and tutors help students in recovery manage the transition from treatment back to classes, classwork, studying, and managing an academic course load.
  • Recovery Support. CRP representatives connect students with on-campus support groups including AA, NA, or SMART Recovery. CRP representatives may host seminars or educational workshops in various recovery topics, from healthy eating and living, to exercise, to mindfulness, and more.
  • Crisis Management and Peer Support. CRP representatives often perform the same function as case managers or peer support specialists who work in treatment centers. They connect students with mental and behavioral health support either on campus or in the community during emergencies, and help students with co-occurring disorder access a full continuum of care. In addition, they may help students find recovery friendly housing on or off campus, and help them manage issues with social services and/or the criminal justice system, or navigate details around admission or other school-specific administrative challenges.
  • Relapse Prevention. CRPs provide resources for and organize recovery-friendly social activities, advocacy events, and awareness efforts. They also often offer workshops on managing social pressure to drink and use drugs, and recruit the help of upperclassmen to help new students maintain recovery in the face of social situations that may feel complex or overwhelming.

To find out if your school has an official CRP, please check the list at the end of this article.

6. Build Your Support Network

Once you do everything above and arrive on campus, it’s time to find your tribe. By that, we mean your recovery support network. In general, your recovery support network is the group of people – friends, mentors, professionals – who help you stay on your program. By your tribe, we mean the people in your social group who know you’re in recovery, might be in recovery themselves, are supportive of your recovery, and willingly and joyfully engage in sober friendly activities and events you enjoy. Your support tribe are often people your age at your school – but they may also be recovery peers you connect with at local 12-step meetings or events who are not connected to your school in any way.

It’s critical to have sober-friendly peers. Evidence shows that adding just one non-drinking/non-using friend to your social network substantially increases your likelihood of sustaining sobriety.

7. Practice Self-Care

This is crucial. When you let the stress of school, including academic pressure, social pressure, worry about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life (if you’re in college), worry about college (if you’re in high school), or worry about an upcoming exam, you may be tempted to handle the stress with alcohol or drugs.

In other words, when you let stress build, your chances of relapse increase.

That’s why it’s important to cover the self-care basics: healthy eating, plenty of exercise, and people to talk to. Those things help you manage stress when it builds up. And as a student, you’ll learn that another key part of self-care is time management. When you plan your study time responsibly, you don’t fall behind, which means you don’t stress out about grades or assignments. That not only ensures your academic success, but also increases your chance of sustaining recovery throughout the school year.

8. Believe

In yourself, in the power of healing and growth, in the strength of your peers, and in the fact that you can do it: you can stay on your program, you can stay sober, and you can achieve long-term recovery if you follow your recovery plan. It takes commitment and effort, but you – along with millions of others – can do it. And if you’re reading this article, we bet you are doing it right now, as we speak.

Collegiate Recovery Programs: The List

Colleges with collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) recognized by the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE):

  1. Allen University
  2. Appalachian State University
  3. Arizona State University
  4. Baylor University
  5. Berkshire Community College
  6. Bingham University
  7. Boston College
  8. Boston University
  9. BridgeValley Community & Technical College
  10. Brown University
  11. Cabrini University
  12. California University of Pennsylvania
  13. Cape Cod Community College
  14. Central Michigan University
  15. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania
  16. Coastal Carolina University
  17. College of Charleston
  18. College of the Holy Cross
  19. Community College of Philadelphia
  20. Concord University
  21. DePaul University – HPW
  22. East Carolina University
  23. Eastern Washington University
  24. Elon University
  25. Emory University
  26. Fairfield University
  27. Fayetteville State University
  28. Ferris State University
  29. Florida Atlantic University
  30. Florida International University
  31. Georgia Institute of Technology
  32. Georgia Southern University
  33. Gonzaga University
  34. Green River College
  35. Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of
  36. Addiction Studies
  37. Holy Family University
  38. Illinois State University
  39. Indiana University – Bloomington
  40. Indiana University-Purdue University
  41. Indianapolis
  42. Iowa State University
  43. Kennesaw State University
  44. Kent State University
  45. Longwood University
  46. Louisiana State University
  47. Loyola Marymount University
  48. Metropolitan State University
  49. Michigan State University
  50. Minneapolis Community and Technical College
  51. Mississippi State University
  52. Monmouth University
  53. Montclair State University
  54. Montgomery County Community College – Power
  55. Program
  56. North Carolina A&T State University
  57. North Carolina Central University
  58. North Carolina State University
  59. Northampton Community College
  60. Norwalk Community College
  61. Ocean County College
  62. Ohio University
  63. Oregon State University
  64. Penn State University
  65. Pratt Institute

If your school is on this list, then you’re in luck. Recovery support services are available now, within easy reach. Take advantage of the support they offer – and good luck this year!

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.