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Celebrating Blue Love

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Marbeth Holmes at Nash Community College shows that a thriving collegiate recovery program can be a success at a non-residential college.

Marbeth Holmes is on a mission to give students at Nash Community College (NCC) in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the same opportunity for a recovery support system that many students at four-year, residential institutions enjoy. In 2015, the Clinical Outreach Counselor and Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences achieved her goal by founding the Celebrate Recovery Collegiate Program at the college, which serves about 5,000 curriculum students.

Community partners Mental Health America and Eastpoine providing information and resources at Collegiate Recovery Celebration Day.

Holmes, whose family has a history of substance abuse, understands the value of a support system in a successful sober lifestyle. “For my loved ones growing up, there were no recovery efforts in place — this was a direct result of the stigma of help-seeking and denial that ran deep within my very middle-class Southern Baptist family,” she says. “Also, we have a better understanding of addiction today as a bio-psycho-social-spiritual disease than we had in previous generations. Then, it was considered more of a moral failing, which significantly increased the stigma and shame. Being a child of an alcoholic has shaped my empathic work with those who are dually diagnosed with mental health and addiction.”

Left: The university’s mascot, the Nighthawk.
Right: East Carolina University Collegiate Recovery Program sharing info at Celebrate Recovery event for college transfer students.

An instructor at NCC since the late 1990s, Holmes began noticing a need for mental health and recovery support in the student population while reading papers submitted in her English class that were filled with personal stories about trauma, substance use and families ripped apart with incarceration and addiction. She couldn’t shake the thought that something needed to be done. In 2011, well into her 40s, she enrolled in the University of North Carolina School of Social Work to pursue her Masters degree while continuing to teach at NCC.

During graduate school, she held internships with Child Protective Services, the Duke University Infectious Disease Clinic and the Duke University Addictions Program, where she worked with patients with triple diagnoses: HIV, substance use disorder and a variety of mental health disorders.

In 2014, armed with her MSW degree and a certificate in substance abuse studies, both an associate’s licenses in clinical social work and in addictions, Holmes set about making some changes to improve the quality of life for students at NCC. She asked the president, Bill Carver, how she could use her degree to provide clinical services. “We are fortunate that our president is very innovative and willing to invest in our students. With his support, that very year we started the Student Wellness Center, where students can obtain mental health services on campus,” she says. For the first two years, she worked under the supervision of a Certified Clinical Supervisor before becoming fully licensed as LCSW and LCAS.

Student receiving information at a Student Wellness Center event at the Midway Cafe.

“To my knowledge, we are the only community college in North Carolina that provides direct clinical practice to students rather than referring them off-campus,” she says. “This is so important. Without this Student Wellness Center, students would have to wait six to eight weeks for mental health therapy services in the community — especially if they had Medicaid.”

At the Student Wellness Center, Holmes held weekly individual therapy sessions — but she knew more was needed. “Many of the students I saw had dual diagnosis. Some were in 12-step recovery programs and others had been in treatment facilities and were white-knuckling it,” she says. “What they all had in common, however, was the desire to have a safe space on campus to get together once a week and support each other. I said I could make that happen.”

She moved quickly, and the following year with the help of student Emily V. as peer leader, launched Celebrate Recovery, a weekly closed group using an unaffiliated 12-step format. More than 250 students participated in the campus Recovery Month Celebration in September 2015; the following spring, the CRP program saw a 100 percent graduation rate.

Since that time, Holmes has earned full licensures both as an LCSW and LCAS and has completed more than 100 hours of professional development training in trauma-informed care for those dually diagnosed with mental health and Substance Use Disorders and now serves as the Director of Student Wellness.

“We are very excited about our developing collaboration with university counterparts providing sober transitions for our college-transfer students,” Holmes says. This year’s NCC Celebrate Recovery Kick Off last September included representatives from area community service providers as well as CRP programs from neighboring transfer universities.

“I am especially proud to work at Nash Community College, where our culture of ‘Blue Love,’ our focus on serving the whole student and our many innovative success strategies empower our students and facilitate healing and increased human and social capacity,” she says.

Recovery Campus spoke with Holmes about how she formed a successful collegiate recovery program at a community college and why other non-residential colleges should consider it.

Recovery Campus: How is a community college different than a residential campus for students in recovery?

Holmes: Our students often have jobs and families — stressors that many traditional university students do not have. They try to schedule their classes to minimize their time on campus. Since our students do not live on campus, the infrastructure is different, but that doesn’t mean we cannot care for the health of the students in the same way as a residential campus.

We have a motto of serving the whole student. We are on the path to meeting as many comprehensive needs of our students as we can with our resources. I wish that every community college could recognize the mental health need of their students.

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