College Students Are Fighting Addiction Hell During the Pandemic

Campus centres for students recovering from addiction are exploding during COVID.
May 14, 2021, 12:30pm
Brittany MacCuspic has learned to make peace with her alone time—with the help of a student recovery centre on campus.
Brittany MacCuspic has learned to make peace with her alone time—with the help of a student recovery centre on campus. Photo supplied

Brittany MacCuspic says her first few years of university were “crazy and really fun”—until she found herself unable to moderate her drinking and drug use. “It just wasn’t strange to be partying that often in school,” said MacCuspic, who started at Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, in 2008.

But she soon found it difficult to physically stop. “I couldn’t pass any of my courses because I was using all the time,” she said. 

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Given the stress and party culture in higher education, experts have noted it as a high-risk environment for substance use disorder. The stress and loneliness that comes with online-only learning during the pandemic have added new challenges for students struggling with addiction, long called a disease of isolation. 

According to a national survey released in December, 60 percent of Canadians ages 18-24 said their mental well-being has suffered since the pandemic began and nearly 20 percent of Canadians said they have relied more on substances to cope. (Before the pandemic, one in five Canadians reported struggling with a mental illness or addiction, with people between 15-24 being the most at risk.)

Campus recovery groups, which provide peer support for students recovering from addiction, have become a lifeline for students, including for MacCuspic. A new movement in Canada, these groups are now starting to pop up across the country.

MacCuspic found an anchor in a campus peer-support group at the University of British Columbia, where she started last fall.

The first of its kind in Canada,  UBC Student Recovery Community was founded in 2019 by Sara Fudjack, a PhD student in social work who is also in recovery. Embracing multiple pathways to recovery from harm reduction to abstinence, it currently serves about 65 student members through weekly meetings, including one specifically for women and gender-diverse students, and one-on-one chats. There is also now recovery ally training for the broader campus. 

For MacCuspic, the pandemic meant school was filtered through endless Zoom meetings. Having been in recovery for three years, MacCuspic said she had learned to make peace with her alone time. But it would have been harder for those who are new to recovery.

“Being alone was the most dangerous time in my first year,” she said.

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“Anybody who is experiencing their first few months or first year in recovery during COVID-19, it definitely got to be excruciating… When you take the substance away, you have to sit with yourself and the life that you have, so it’s really dangerous for people to not have someone else to reach out to.”

While students can already attend external support meetings, MacCuspic said they can find a better sense of camaraderie and understanding with campus groups around specific issues, like the stress that comes with exams. 

Meetings don’t focus on “ingredients” to recovery like 12-step programs, but rather on plans for the week ahead or managing relationships with family, said MacCuspic, who is now both a participant and facilitator of UBC’s student recovery program. And instead of counting milestones based on months or years of sobriety, the group encourages students to make their own markers, like going out dancing without being on any substances for the first time. 

“It’s these little things that we don’t think to acknowledge and they are sometimes the biggest things when you’re in early recovery,” MacCuspic said.

Students said these communities also allow them to take up space. “Just having that group of supportive people really helps my ability to get the most out of (school),” said Meagan Park, administrative assistant of Lancers Recover, a recovery community at the University of Windsor that started in 2020. 

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In the United States, the first campus support group was started at Brown University in 1977 and there are now over 130 programs across the country. While Canada still lags far behind its neighbour, the idea is now picking up steam.

Fudjack said she has been in contact with individuals from six schools who are developing a program in their own community, and several others that have expressed interest. Launa Linaker, a PhD student researching trauma and care ethics, is launching a student recovery centre at the University of Alberta in September. At the University of Calgary, students, as well as staff and faculty, will also soon have an official recovery collective by July. 

“I’m hoping to normalize recovery across the board because it affects everyone in our University of Calgary community,” said Dr. Victoria Burns, a co-lead of the collective and an assistant professor in social work who is also in recovery.

They are also working on making recovery more accessible. For instance, UBC’s centre will be  offering both in-person and online meetings even as the university resumes in-person classes this fall.

With the online-only model, some have reported finding it harder to attend meetings at home for fear of outing themselves to their family; others are already dealing with Zoom fatigue. But the added anonymity can help make meetings more open to people who are new to recovery. 

Ultimately, amid adjustments and new launches, Canadian campus recovery groups are sure that their movement is here to stay.

 “Most people know somebody who’s been touched by addiction,” said Park. “And if someone’s willing to champion that cause, then there’s growth.”

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