Students PhotoVoicing Collegiate Recovery
By KELSEY ALLEN
How students in recovery at the University of California, Riverside used photography to voice their experiences, concerns and ideas for campus recovery support
For five years, University of California, Riverside had a thriving collegiate recovery community. Known as the Healing Highlanders, they hosted the California Unified Collegiate Recovery Conference in 2012, and the following year, the student group won the UC President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership.
Then the Healing Highlanders lost funding. There were budget cuts, and the administration didn’t perceive there to be a real need for collegiate recovery support on the University of California, Riverside (UCR) campus.
Unfortunately, the Healing Highlanders’ story isn’t all that rare. Many collegiate recovery programs across the country struggle to get and sustain institutional support. Ann Cheney is trying to change that.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
Cheney isn’t in recovery, but her younger brother struggled with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders before he passed away. As a medical anthropologist and assistant professor in the Center for Healthy Communities at the UCR School of Medicine, Cheney has focused her research on mental health and substance use health services.
When the UCR Collegiate Recovery Advisory Board lost its funding, the group reached out to Cheney to see if she could figure out a way to use research to reignite the recovery movement on campus. Enter PhotoVoice, a participatory action research method grounded in principles of consciousness-raising, health education and promotion.
“It’s used to mobilize communities to act,” Cheney says. “The idea is you give cameras to people in a marginalized community who lack a voice, and they make photographs as a way to voice their needs or experiences or whatever they want to advocate for. We used it to raise awareness about students in recovery on our own campus.”
Cheney recruited 17 students who had been in recovery for six months, handed them a camera, and told them to make photographs that describe their realities and communicate their perspectives. They were guided by two prompts:
- What is your experience of being a student in recovery?
- What are the kinds of support you would like to help you to stay in recovery?
A week later, the students returned with their photographs.
BEHIND THE LENS
Cheney was surprised by what she saw. “I certainly anticipated the students would talk about the drinking and using culture on campus,” she says. “What I thought was surprising was how stigmatized their identity was and how they really didn’t feel comfortable sharing that they had an addiction history or an alcohol and drug use history and that they felt so much shame about sharing that information.
“What we heard frequently is that this was the first time the students were sharing with anyone that they have this identity, that they have this past history or that they’re in recovery,” Cheney continues. “One student said this project allowed her to come out of her shell. At first, she felt not as comfortable sharing she was a person in recovery. Now it’s a positive part of her identity, and she’s an advocate for students in recovery. Without the project, would she have a venue to explore that identity change for herself? Probably not. It makes me think the PhotoVoice project was a space to be able to voice who she is in a way she couldn’t before.”
Through the PhotoVoice project, photography became a tool for students to voice their experiences, concerns and ideas for campus recovery support and the primary vehicle through which perspectives, ideas and recommendations emerged.
SILENCED NO MORE
The project not only gave students in recovery the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story, but it also gave Cheney the research data she needed to advocate for training and awareness and to ultimately revive the collegiate recovery community.
In November 2017, she hosted a PhotoVoice exhibit on campus and invited faculty, staff, students, key leaders in student wellness and others who could make change happen. The narratives of the photos reflected four themes, which were the focus of the exhibit:
- The Campus Environment: A Culture of Using
- The Neglected Addiction: Students’ Recovery Experiences
- The Recovery Path: Academics, Art, and Sport
- Campus Recovery Support
Audience members had the opportunity to interpret the photos covering all four themes. Then, for each photo, a student presenter discussed the photo, narrated its meaning and read one of the audience member’s interpretation of the photo.
“The feedback was powerful,” Cheney says. “It raised awareness that students in recovery exist on our own campus. It also helped us learn about what the campus could do to support their recovery needs.”
For example, students showed through the photographs how they need space to meet other people in recovery and have peer-led recovery support meetings.
Cheney brought this information to student wellness and student affairs with the goal of reviving the collegiate recovery community on campus.
“In that meeting, we identified our assets, what capacity we had and then any challenges we may encounter along the way,” she says. “The PhotoVoice project was instrumental. It visually allowed us to say, ‘This is what students are saying, and this is why.’ It gave us a way to symbolically talk about their stigma, their limited access to mental health care services, the fact that there’s no physical space for them to meet.”
Today, the Healing Highlanders is once again an active student organization with a mission. The students collaborated with the wellness program to find a centrally located space on campus to host recovery meetings, which are now led by a PhotoVoice project participant. There is a student listserv with more than 160 names of students who are in recovery or are allies. And campus leaders are having discussions around creating recovery housing.
“PhotoVoice was critical in driving all of this. The university is increasingly moving toward our goal of creating a collegiate recovery community with space and staffing,” says Cheney, who encourages other colleges and universities to use the PhotoVoice project as a way to get institutional buy-in.
“If you have students in recovery and they are OK sharing their identities, they could use this method to advocate for themselves, to show what their experiences are like, to educate the campus community about what it’s like to be a student in recovery and what resources would be beneficial.”
For more information about PhotoVoice and how you and your collegiate recovery community or program could use photography for social change, visit photovoice.org.