Power in Resilience
By PATTI ZIELINSKI
The AlphaPoint online video program combines drug and alcohol education with skill-building lessons in mental health and relationships to instill resilience in incoming first-year college students.
The transition between high school and college is a heady time for young adults. It is the first time many of them will be making major decisions, including those on their use of alcohol and drugs. Most think that their peers drink and use drugs regularly when the reality is very different. Many might struggle quietly with mental health conditions that they don’t understand or realize are common. They may have little knowledge of the importance of wellness — or the resources available to help them achieve it. Some lack basic interpersonal skills, such as how to build healthy relationships, communicate with a diverse group of people or act civilly toward one another.
In short, many incoming first-year students need to build their resilience and learn skills that will help them overcome challenges and interact well with their fellow students. Therein lies the roadmap for personal success at college.
Over her decades in higher education, Kitty Harris has come to a unique understanding of what college students — especially those in recovery — need to succeed academically, socially, and in terms of mental and physical wellness. A pioneer in collegiate recovery programs, Harris helped develop and grow the collegiate recovery community at Texas Tech University and served as the director of the school’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery for 12 years. Her research shed new light on the neuroscience of recovery and has served as the foundation for evidence-based higher education addiction recovery programs nationwide.
Now, as president of NLW Partners — the acronym stands for “No Lives Wasted” — Harris continues her research, education and outreach to further addiction recovery. Four years ago, she and former Texas Tech colleague Jared Dempsey, a neurological and clinical psychologist and NLW’s chief science officer, launched AlphaPoint, a video-based resilience program developed for incoming college students. The focus of the program revolves around drugs and alcohol, mental health, sexual assault, diversity, and civility. It assists educational institutions in meeting Title IX, Clery Act and EDGAR Part 86 requirements.
The program is based on the team’s collaborative research, applied science and direct experience working with collegiate populations. It includes courses that are specifically devoted to areas where there are problems at schools, and each section is created by experts in that particular subject.
“Our goal is to equip emerging adults with the information and knowledge they need to make that first experience on their own a positive one and give them as many skills as they can get in this way to be successful,” Harris says. “Transitioning from high school to college causes significant stresses for students and is associated with an increased risk for alcohol problems and depression. However, if they understand this and are better equipped to make the transition from a social and wellness perspective, they will have the skills to tackle the challenges they will face without turning to substances.”
The subjects that AlphaPoint covers include alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, opioids, cigarettes and vaping, education on substances, consequences, and recognizing a problem.
Recovery Campus spoke to Harris about AlphaPoint’s mission and how it is achieved.
Recovery Campus: How did the concept of AlphaPoint come about?
Kitty Harris: For many years, I taught a freshman course in an honors college, and the students would tell me about the mandatory online alcohol and wellness course they had to take before classes began. These were the smartest students, but they thought that it didn’t apply to them, especially if they didn’t drink in high school. I did not feel that they took the program seriously and that there was a disconnect.
It occurred to us that most of these programs for new students dealt only with alcohol and drugs, but that is only one tiny piece of the freshman experience in terms of adjusting and getting their life together. One of my research areas is resilience and young adults, and I realized that what they needed was a course that built resilience.
We named the program AlphaPoint to recognize that this is taken at the beginning point of a person’s college career. We wanted students to start on the right foot with the right information.
RC: What was your approach?
KH: We asked what information could freshmen use to best ensure their success at an institution of higher education. We wanted to equip students with real facts about alcohol and drugs, of course. Mental health, including suicide, is an important topic that for years has not been addressed due to stigma. The program provides students with the knowledge and skills to recognize mental health issues and seek support on campus. Only 10 percent of psychologically distressed college students ever seek professional help, often due to barriers such as fear of stigma and privacy concerns.
We wanted to teach them what healthy relationships look like, how to build them and the communications skills they need. We addressed diversity and, something very personal to me, civility. I taught a class on civility, and I would hear how people are just not nice anymore. So, we thought this would be important for students to understand — everything from how to interact with one another personally in a respectful way to electronic communications. There are lessons in basic etiquette that people don’t always learn growing up anymore. We provide tools for interacting with diverse groups and provide strategies to promote civil interactions across communities.
RC: How did you make the program engaging for students to hold their interest?
KH: We kept it to about an hour and a half, and students do not have to complete it in one sitting. It is video-based and interactive. We shot it in a film studio in Austin, Texas, using actual students from the University of Texas.
RC: Are there variants of the program?
KH: Yes, we created an NCAA-specific course that met the organization’s requirements. Also, on a few occasions, we have created a school-specific version of AlphaPoint that makes minor adjustments to address a certain need at the school.
In addition to AlphaPoint, we also have two other programs: Trac9 (trac9.com), which measures the outcomes of treatment centers, and Recover Online (recoveronline.org), which is an online recovery program for people who cannot go on-site to a treatment facility or don’t have the money for residential treatment.
RC: How did you use evidence-based science to inform the drug and alcohol section?
KH: We looked at the research on what emerging adults look to when they start making choices about their alcohol and drug use. We found that people tend to think that more people drink and use drugs than actually do. The research shows that the attitude of young people toward substance use is “everybody does this.” So, we added questions along those lines and then give the actual statistical facts. For example, one slide asks “Approximately what percentage of college students drink alcohol every day: 81 percent, 23 percent, 5 percent or less than 1 percent?” The actual answer is less than 1 percent, which may surprise some students. This gives them accurate information on the perception versus the reality of alcohol and drug use on campus.
We do the same with other categories like mental health, which removes the stigma surrounding conditions by looking at them from a science perspective. We show them what happens in their brain when they are depressed, when they are anxious. In many instances, this is the first opportunity students have to think about things like their own mental health.
RC: What surprised you when you were working on this program?
KH: One thing was learning what incoming students’ biggest concerns were regarding starting school. At one university, students mentioned 97 different fears! Some were just heartbreaking: People will think I’m fat. I won’t have anyone to be friends with. No one will like me. I won’t fit in anywhere. I won’t make the team. You see patterns of looking at students starting college and realizing that some of their struggles are general and so overwhelming to them to the point of being paralyzing. It used to be that depression was the biggest challenge, but now students are reporting anxiety as their major struggle.
Along those lines, we also discovered that at many schools’ students are waiting weeks to see a counselor. We have to do better in that regard, but having students simply recognizing that they need help is a good first step.
Find out more about AlphaPoint at alphapoint.me.