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April 24, 2019

PCORI award seeks to support students in recovery

Project is the first major effort in the UC system to assess the needs of students in recovery

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
April 24, 2019

The UC Riverside School of Medicine will address the marginalization of students in recovery from substance-use disorders with a $250,000 award designed to engage the Riverside campus and all others in the University of California system.

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, or PCORI, Eugene Washington Engagement Award will allow Ann Cheney, an assistant professor at the Center for Healthy Communities in the School of Medicine, to work for two years with students, academic colleagues, and recovery professionals. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 20% of college students meet the criteria for alcohol-use disorder. The number using illicit drugs has risen from 34% in 2006 to 43% in 2016.

Ann Cheney
Ann Cheney. (School of Medicine/UC Riverside)

“UCR has a legacy of leadership in the collegiate recovery movement that began with the formation of a Collegiate Recovery Advisory Board and propelled forward by the ‘Igniting a Recovery Movement’ conference that engaged the UC and California higher education in the recovery movement,” said Cheney, the award’s principal investigator. “It is fitting that UCR received this contract — it will allow us to lead the UC in research on collegiate recovery.”

Many young people begin to use or abuse substances when they attend college. In 2016, the National Institutes of Health concluded that daily marijuana use among college-age youth was at the highest level since the early 1980s. Heavy alcohol use was higher in college students than their noncollege peers. Almost a third of college students admit to binge drinking and more than 40% say they have been drunk.

In addition, the devastating effects of increased opioid use over the past few years concerns researchers like Cheney who are involved in collegiate substance-use recovery. These researchers have been increasing efforts to meet the needs of this vulnerable population. Current estimates put the number of daily deaths in the U.S. from opioid overdose at 130.

Several UC campuses have established Collegiate Recovery Programs, or CRPs, in recent years to address substance-use disorder at the college level, beginning with UC Riverside’s program from 2011 to 2013. Today, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz and UCLA have strong recovery support, with UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Merced and UC San Diego at various stages of instituting programs.

“Young adults in recovery from alcohol and other drug problems face challenges in maintaining sobriety on college campuses,” Cheney said. “Many live and study in the abstinence-hostile environment of a college campus. They experience stigma and often little or no support.”

Cheney’s work represents the first major effort in the UC system to assess the needs of the student recovery population. Her investigation will focus on three critical areas: The need for increased awareness of collegiate recovery; the need to increase the ability of critical campus entities to identify the best treatment and support for students in recovery; and the need to include students’ voices in addressing their needs.

“Students in recovery realize that their voices are often absent from student health service decision-making,” Cheney said. “We want to place their voice and experiences at the forefront of conversations about collegiate recovery.”

During an earlier research project looking at recovering students’ needs and perceptions, Cheney found many felt isolated amid long-held beliefs that drinking and using drugs are part of the college party experience. 

“The stigmas attached to addiction and recovery have limited awareness of the students’ needs for services,” she said. “Too many students do not access mental health or substance-use services or recovery groups because they feel ashamed of their addiction. They may not share with others their past struggles because of stigmatizing attitudes about people with addiction histories.”

In addition to educating and engaging the various areas of campus in student recovery, Cheney plans to develop a game plan for future research after her two-year award comes to a close.

Research shows supporting students in recovery offers considerable benefits to UC campuses. Students who participate in collegiate recovery programs, with strong peer support within the community, have low instances of relapse and excel in their academics with high graduation and retention rates.

Cheney stressed that UC campuses offer programs and opportunities for many underserved populations. 

“Our work provides an opportunity to support students struggling with a history of addiction in molding successful academic and professional lives,” she said. “Ultimately, we want to develop a research agenda for future work on collegiate recovery that would involve comparing two or more health interventions aimed to improve the wellbeing of this student population.”

Cheney will be joined in the research by Frances Fernandes, chair of the UCR Collegiate Recovery Advisory Board; Tanya Nieri, an associate professor in the UCR Department of Sociology; Sarah Pemberton, LCSW; Danielle Cravalho, UCR doctoral student in education; Fiona Ryan-Shirey, UCR undergraduate in psychology; and community partners Lisa Molina and Jessica Clark, founders of Solid Ground Wellness in Recovery.

Frances Fernandes wrote the original draft of this news release.

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