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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.

“You just don’t recognize who you are. You don’t realize how detached you are from your center and who you are. You just feel just like that shadow that you’re just living with. I could tell you that I felt really confined and used to be isolated, could feel like you just can’t see past the tip of your nose.”

“When I got to the university, it was OK. Like, “Oh, it’s fine to be unorganized, it’s fine to have bottles of alcohol everywhere.’ I feel like (that’s) where the transformation really happened. Where I started to think, “It’s OK. People are still going to school, getting an education. It’s not really affecting them. So why would it affect me?”

“I feel really exposed, like obviously something’s wrong with me. Like the crack in the glass, like there’s something in my makeup that is wrong and people can see that.”

“These telephone poles symbolize the messy path toward sobriety and how it’s not easy, and there’s definitely a lot of turns and twists and a lot of obstacles get in the way of reaching your goal. It’s not always just gonna be a straight line.”

“You went to school so many years, and now, you’re finally getting a degree. And that’s where the recovery comes into play. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. If you’re willing to put in the work to get to where you wanna be, you can get there. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. It might not look like it from a distance, but sooner or later, it’ll start coming. You’ll start seeing it, the more you find yourself – I think yourself is the brightest light you can have. You can find a light to help you illuminate your path to sobriety or recovery, depending on what you’re looking for.”

“I think also the people are embarrassed to think that like, “Oh, I might be an alcoholic.” I think it’s helpful to know, “There’s this service, and there’s people like you out there. You’re not alone’ kind of thing, like “you’re not the only one thinking this way.” Where if there’s no services, then it’s kind of like, “Wow, does that mean no one else is interested in this? No one else needs this service?”

“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.

“Recovery is the actual road. You’re not gonna reach recovery. It’s not like, “Oh, you’re over the addiction. You’re fine. You’re not an addict anymore,’ or, “You’re no longer in recovery.” It doesn’t work like that. My entire life, I will always have to stay away from the substances that I have issues with. I will always have to stay away from the substances that I have issues with. I will always have to stay away from that. Whenever people are like, “Oh, you’re reaching recovery,’it’s like, ‘No, you’re always in recovery. Recovery is the road. What you reach is what you want.”

“Things that helped out a lot were just places like this. You could
just kind of have that solitude, but it was a nice solitude, you could just sit and relax, just think about life and stuff like that. These are nooks around the campus, where you have to walk through to get to — there, you can just be away from everything and just kind of do that self-reflection and just think about stuff.”

“There has to be a sense of community and acceptance to an addict. Without that feeling of inclusion, it is easier to relapse and give up. If a UC, or school in general, can provide those securities for people seeking to improve upon themselves, then perhaps those people wouldn’t be afraid to seek out the help that they desperately want.”

“It’s like a part of me has fallen, but the good part of me is still
standing. Yet the part that’s fallen is still there because it’s still a
part of you.”

“I almost look at that room, even though it’s a hangout/study room — people just go there to do homework and hang out with each other because we all have similar classes. I see it almost as a sanctuary. My major is electrical engineering, which is objectively a really hard major, one of the toughest ones on campus for undergrads. There’s a lot of pressure to do well in school. And, as a recovering student, having a place where I can go where there’s like-minded people and I know that there’s no chance of substances, because it is a campus affiliated room.”

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.

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