Are College Rehabs Sending the Right Message to Students?
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Are College Rehabs Sending the Right Message to Students?


Are College Rehabs Sending the Right Message to Students?
Bad things happen when people drink. Drinking and using drugs is not a healthy behavior. At the same time, people are allowed to be unhealthy. Young people, especially, should be given room to experiment. You’re allowed to get drunk. You’re allowed to get drunk and not be raped.

These were my first thoughts when I’d finished reading a piece on NPR about the proliferation of student recovery programs on college campuses. Specifically, they profiled the Center for Students in Recovery at the University of Texas. The facilities themselves sound wonderful, as do its programs. I’m all for a place where students can come together, mentor one another and hold each other accountable as they work toward their life goals. The center says its mission is “to provide a supportive community where students in recovery and in hope of recovery can achieve academic success while enjoying a genuine college experience free from alcohol and other drugs. ”

College students get a lot of messaging that drug and alcohol abuse is a natural part of the college experience, and that can have devastating consequences. If a kid’s got a problem with alcohol or drugs, there needs to be a place to go. That said, I’m extremely wary of anything that sounds like it might be pushing abstinence-based programming on kids.

Whether we’re talking about drinking, drugs or sex, we’ve learned that “just say no” doesn’t typically work. Beyond this, I have some qualms labeling or encouraging a young person to label themselves “alcoholic.” Certainly, not every young person who exhibits a problem with alcohol and drugs needs to abstain for the rest of their lives.

I know that as I continue in my recovery, my relationship with the label “alcoholic” has changed. When I first got sober, I happily introduced myself in 12-step meetings as an alcoholic, relieved to have found that one word I thought described everything that was wrong. As I continued in recovery, however, I realized my problems were not only, and perhaps not best described as, “alcoholic.” For starters, the compulsiveness around my drinking revealed itself in nearly all aspects of my life. My relationship with alcohol was a symptom, indicative of mental health issues not necessarily described in the Big Book.

Let’s not get it twisted: sobriety saved my life and I have no intention of going back to drinking. But drinking wasn’t my only issue, and sobriety isn’t for everyone. I’m not saying that young people shouldn’t get sober. I do worry, however, that colleges focusing on the problem of alcohol risk ignoring or obfuscating other issues.

Case in point: within the NPR piece, they introduce Lizette Smith, who turned to pills as a teen to regulate her emotions after being physically and sexually abused as a child. Lizette is initially described as having been “born into a well-to-do family,” “smart, popular, got good grades.” In other words, she’s the quintessential “good kid gone bad”—until her story about being raped while drunk complicates the narrative, and brings up the sticky subject of alcohol and sexual assault.

At worst, when we bring up the issue of a victim’s drug or alcohol abuse, we cast blame onto the victim; at best, we’re shifting at least partial responsibility from the perpetrator onto a disease. After she was raped while intoxicated, Lizette left the school she had previously been attending and went to rehab. After that, she enrolled in the University of Texas, where she became a regular at the Center for Students in Recovery. While there’s no evidence that Lizette is blaming herself for what happened—the perpetrator was convicted, she calls what happened rape—I worry that sending a victimized student off to treatment for alcoholism glosses over the issue of trauma, which, in this case, occurred both before and as a result of her sexual assault.

My biggest concern with abstinence-based programming is that kids will have to label themselves an alcoholic or addict to participate in needed programs, and that we’re coercing kids who need psychological services to remain sober when perhaps they don’t need to live alcohol-free. The same way that young people ought to be taught about safer sex, there ought to be drug and alcohol programs on campus that focus on moderation. And we also need to be proactive about perpetrators, educating students so they understand that just because they got drunk wouldn’t excuse any unethical or criminal things, including sexual assault, that they might do to others while drunk.

As far as UT’s Center for Students in Recovery, I appreciate the fact that they don’t kick people out if they relapse. According to their website, they also welcome students curious about sobriety to explore, experience and understand recovery. And they describe themselves as providing an arena for exploring the continuum of compulsive behaviors, addictions and coping skills. It’s a space where students learn to integrate the principles of recovery into daily life and take part in fun, sober activities.

It sounds more like a wellness center than a rehab. I wish they’d call it that. That way, students like Lizette could get the help they need—without necessarily placing the blame on booze.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.