Freshman Year 101

How students can equip themselves to lean into the discomfort of growing up, remaining in good health of mind and body and moving out of the shadow of their parents

There’s that adage that you don’t know until you know, which essentially tells us that experience is biology’s original educator. Remember learning to drive a car? We don’t know until we feel the hum of the engine and the turn of the wheel at our fingertips. It’s the same for freshman year of college — especially for students in recovery.

Come each fall, millions of teens say farewell to coddling parents and flock to institutions of higher learning to build up their lives — and the country — in pursuit of something bigger than themselves. There’s nothing quite like it. College is an experience that sets the stage with newfound independence, mad confusion and a dash of hope for the great things to come. For incoming students in recovery from a substance abuse, process disorder or mental health issue, freshman year can pose a unique set of challenges. Still, students of all stripes — in recovery or otherwise — can equip themselves with tools to lean into the discomfort of growing up, remaining in good health of mind and body and moving out of the shadow of their parents.


Living in a Digital World

For the modern teen dealing with the ups and downs of recovery and on the cusp of entering college, challenges related to anxiety and depression, pervasive drug and alcohol experimentation by peers, sex and sexuality, and a whole new social landscape push teens ever closer to adulthood. There’s a lot more for the student in recovery to handle than just lectures and bluebooks, dorms and roommates, parties, and Greek life. And this is all set against the backdrop of an increasingly digital world.

Researchers are finding the ubiquitous digital world in which college students and adolescents grew up may be contributing to the growing number of freshmen experiencing anxiety and depression. An extensive study conducted by researchers at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute surveyed 150,000 students across 50 years and found that incoming freshmen are glued to their phones and are socializing with friends in person less than ever before. In 1987, 38 percent of the freshmen surveyed socialized a minimum of 16 hours per week. By 2014, that number dropped to 18 percent. This issue can be particularly complicated as every freshman student in recovery knows a smartphone can be an asset — a lifeline to a 12-step support member — or a crippling temptation — a call to get a drink. The researchers also found that incoming freshmen rated their emotional health lower than any class since 1985. Students surveyed were asked to rate their emotional health in comparison to their peers, and only 51 percent said their emotional health was in the top 10 percent.

Anxiety and depression are often seen as triggers for substance abuse. Freshmen in recovery must be aware of these types of pressures in the first year of college and build a close relationship with their sponsor for added support, seek out on-campus counseling and mental health services, and maintain communication with family and loved ones.

Dealing with the ‘Freshman Blues’

With midterms falling just two months into the fall semester, a few hiccups in scores may be the first signs a student may be feeling rising pressures.

In a recent Seventeen magazine article titled “What No One Tells You About Freshman Year of College,” Michelle Ruiz writes about the way students leave their tight-knit high school communities for state schools with 3,000-plus freshman classes, sprawling campuses and party-central dormitories. It can be tough to make new social circles in a college setting already rife with the sometimes isolating effects of online digital communities. The article found that “anxiety has outpaced depression as the most common mental health issue among college students overall.” In turn, “mental health issues are gripping college students, especially freshmen,” Ruiz writes, “from cases of homesickness and difficulty adjusting to college — sometimes called the ‘freshman blues’ — to more serious battles” such as substance abuse, addiction and recovery.

In addition to anxiety and depression, it’s likely for freshmen in recovery to encounter alcohol and drugs due to lack of parental supervision, unstructured free time, the widespread availability at parties and dorms, and typically unenforced underage drinking laws. As such, it’s important for the recovering student to know the facts and offer support to friends and social groups who take to the ease and availability of drugs and alcohol.

“The first six weeks of freshman year are a vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures,” reports the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “College students have higher binge-drinking rates and a higher incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol than their non-college peers.”

These kinds of alcohol-related issues can cause problems for students struggling to find their niche. In fact, the NIAAA report also found that 1 in 4 students experience academic problems stemming from alcohol use, including “missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.”

©Peter Forster

Exploring Sex in a Safe Place

Freshmen in recovery are at an age when they’re still exploring their sexuality, and a college campus may be a confusing place to learn and experience sex. Unfortunately, in some cases, freshman men and women experience sexual violence in the form of assault and rape. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a national survey on sexual assault and found that “97,000 students between the ages 18 to 24 report alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.”

In recent years, colleges and universities have reported more incidences of campus rape.

With these reports igniting a national conversation about campus rape, new laws, preventative measures and investigation procedures have been developed to keep students safe. Despite these challenges, the best way for a freshman student in recovery to enter college may be with open eyes to experience.

“It’s not as if there’s this light switch and we’re suddenly ready for the whole adult world,” Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, told Seventeen.

As such, students in recovery can turn to their university services to help with anxiety and depression. Hundreds of campuses across the country have counseling and mental health services to ease the pressures a freshman student may experience.

©Brooke Cagle

In addition, innovative programs for students in recovery are popping up on college campuses nationwide. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) is a nationwide program that partners with numerous schools to “incorporate recovery on campus[es] in a way that is unique to their population and culture.” Visit collegiaterecovery.org to find out if your school offers a collegiate recovery program through ARHE.

Another program leading the effort is The Haven at College. This program is a “national provider of on-campus addiction treatment and recovery support services that meets students where they are.” One part of their services includes the M&M program, or Mentoring and Monitoring, where students are introduced to honest accountability and are exposed to healthy lifestyle choices, including support groups, family communication involvement, individual weekly counseling, weekly drug testing, peer mentorship, and special housing and residence life.

©Loic Djim

In conjunction with national collegiate programs such as The Haven at College and ARHE, colleges and universities offer a variety of clubs, organizations, theater and improv groups, intramural sports, classes and other activities for students to get involved. Ask your orientation or academic adviser or look in your admissions welcome packet to learn more about all the exciting activities and services offered at college. Staying physically active and engaging with social groups is one of the best ways for freshmen in recovery to remain healthy and sober.

For students who choose to explore sex and sexuality, resident assistants with the resident life and student affairs offices coordinate sexual health and sex-positive programs for students to learn about the issues. Programs cover a range of topics including challenges campuses face related to sexual assault, sexual health, information about sexually transmitted diseases and preventative measures, and access to birth control. Moreover, many campuses have opened gender and sexuality centers to provide a safe space for LGBTQ students to thrive in the campus community.

Freshman year can be daunting for students from all backgrounds. For the student in recovery, there are positive ways to get involved, stay active and find support in the campus community. University services, nationwide programs and extracurricular activities are among the ways students can find success in their first year.

Louise Stanger, speaker, educator, clinician and interventionist, uses an invitational intervention approach with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients. Stanger publishes in the Huffington Post, Journal of Alcohol Studies, The Sober World, Recovery Campus, DB Resources, Counselor magazine, Recovery View, Addiction Blog and other media. The San Diego Business Journal listed her as one of the “Top 10 Women Who Mean Business” and is considered by Quit Alcohol as one of the top 10 interventionists in the country. She speaks all over the country and trains staff at Paradigm Malibu, New Found Life and Lakeview Health and develops original family programs such as at Driftwood Recovery in Austin, Texas. Stanger is the recipient of the 2014 Foundations Fan Favorite Speaker Award and the 2016 Joseph L. Galletta Spirit of Recovery Award. She was one of the original United States Higher Education Associates in alcohol and other drug prevention and was faculty at San Diego State University and an administrator at University of San Diego for a total of 26 years. Her book Falling Up: A Memoir of Renewal is available on Amazon and Learn to Thrive: An Intervention Handbook on her website at allaboutinterventions.com.

Roger Porter is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in marketing and filmmaking. He works in the entertainment industry and writes screenplays and coverage. When he’s not doing that, he tutors middle and high school students. As a former collegiate resident assistant and orientation adviser, he is committed to being an advocate for public discourse on college campuses.

Written by Louise A. Stanger and Roger Porter


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