Hidden in plain sight: U of M pressured to create space for sober students

A person uses exercise equipment in a gym
Sasha Kozachok works out in the gym at The University Club of St. Paul on July 23.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 4:48 p.m.

Drug and alcohol use is often considered synonymous with the college experience, especially at large party schools like the University of Minnesota.

Some are watching with concern now that recreational marijuana use is legal. As U of M students begin classes this fall, a faculty group is pushing to decrease stigma and increase visibility of substance use disorder on campus.

They say drug and alcohol abuse looks different for each of the up to 12 percent of students nationwide who struggle, according to a national epidemiological psychiatry study.

Some students, like 19-year-old journalism major Sasha Kozachok, knew upon enrollment at the U of M's Twin Cities campus that substance use would never be part of their college experience. As soon as he began classes last fall, Kozachok sought a supportive community of other students in recovery from substance use disorder.

He found out about Recovery on Campus, or ROC, after asking for resources on his class Facebook group. The student group run by the university's Boynton Health organizes weekly meetings for sober students.

For Kozachok, it's a community that's since proven invaluable, especially during difficult times.

“As long as I can hold off until whatever day we have our meeting, typically Fridays, then I can process with my peers and I can get their input and kind of feel out like, ‘What I should do moving forward?’” he said. “That's honestly a godsend.”

But Kozachok and other students see room for improvement when it comes to the U's resources for students in recovery. They say there is a stigma surrounding sobriety and that resources like ROC need more promotion. He said fewer than 10 students tend to participate in ROC's weekly meetings.

A group of faculty say on a campus with more than 50,000 students, they know more students are struggling with their substance use. And they deserve to feel represented.

A young man poses for a photo
Sasha Kozachok poses for a photo in the gym at The University Club of St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Coordinating recovery

The faculty work group is armed with specific ideas for change they plan to present to the highest rungs of university leadership. These include the hiring of a recovery coordinator — a full-time staff member who would develop programming that integrates students in recovery into all parts of campus life.

Gayle Golden, a journalism professor, helped draft the faculty resolution. She said at the university level, students need to be recognized and included, rather than singled out.

“You need someone to help build out the recovery community more broadly, beyond just meetings in a health center,” she said. “How can you do outreach? How can you offer training and de-stigmatization programming? How many people are not being reached?”

Recent graduate Danny, 24, felt isolated as a student in recovery.

He transferred to the Twin Cities campus from the University of Minnesota Duluth after going through treatment for alcohol addiction. MPR News agreed not to use Danny's last name due to his concerns about career prospects.

“I'd go to class and try not to be the guy that I am when I'm around other addicts and alcoholics,” he said. “I felt like none of my peers could understand what's going on in my personal life. So I tried to keep it sort of separate. And that made it feel more manageable.”

Danny said he knew about ROC but didn't think the support group was right for him at the time, though he admitted his own stigmas may have held him back.

“I really thought about doing it for a while, but I just felt alone,” he said. “Even though I knew that the students in that group were in recovery, too, I didn't know if their recovery looked like mine.”

He added by the time he started at the university, he was connected with other Twin Cities recovery communities, which helped him stay sober. But he recognized not all students are aware of outside support or find them accessible.

“Just to have someone to say, ‘Hey, try going here, and let me know how it goes,’ or you know, anything like that, would be helpful,” Danny added.

A person sits on a low brick wall
Danny sits for a photo with his skateboard outside the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in St. Paul on July 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The cost of complacence

Golden believes outside of the responsibility the university has to its students, creating an environment where students struggling with substance use feel seen and understood is a good business investment. The work group calculated the Twin Cities campus alone loses up to $6.5 million each year from students who relapse and drop out.

At a time when many colleges, including the University of Minnesota, are struggling with recruitment, Golden said creating a welcoming environment for all should be a priority.

“When people have to live amongst stigma and in silence amid a culture of use, it really makes it very hard for a student, and they go elsewhere where they can find that,” Golden said. “I think that's what people don't understand at the U. I think if they understood that, they would really try to change.”

Golden said it could take months to get the resolution the support it needs to come into effect.

Boynton Health declined MPR News interview requests. In a statement, Office of Student Affairs spokesperson Caley Conney said the university “regularly communicates with students to share recovery resources. We believe that talking regularly and transparently about substance use disorder and support available can help address stigma and barriers.”

The Duluth campus’ drug and alcohol educator, Lauretta Perry, works with students who violate substance use policy or are questioning their use.

She said over the past several years, she's seen an uptick in self-referrals. And now, more than ever, students are coming in to talk about marijuana.

“They're knocking on the door, saying ‘I’m smoking too much weed,’” Perry said. “That's the substance that's really on my radar at this moment.”

A person jumps in the air on a skateboard
Danny ollies on a banked sidewalk outside the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in St. Paul on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

According to the University of Minnesota’s most recent student health survey, more than half of students had used marijuana in their lifetime, and more than one-third had used in the past year.

Perry said it's hard to gauge just how many students need help, making it more difficult for universities to recognize and combat substance use disorder.

“The thing that is right smack between our eyes, in this moment as we're coming out of the pandemic, is the mental health needs of our students,” she said. “While we're having a hard time measuring the number of students that might require recovery support, the number of students presenting to us with mental health issues is loud and clear.”

But Danny contends that recovery and mental health are often interconnected, and that the university's recent efforts to support student mental health needs should include substance use support.

Danny is returning to UMD in the fall to get his master's degree in math. And he says without recovery, that wouldn't be possible.

“Nothing else exists without me staying clean. I’ve learned the hard way, everything can be gone, like in an instant, as things get worse and worse,” he said. “So I'm just gonna make sure I'm on top of it.”

Along with ROC, the university offers substance-free housing, health promotion consultations and substance use assessments for students who want to evaluate their alcohol and drug use. The Twin Cities campus also employs several drug and alcohol counselors, Conney said.

Conney said the university has “an ongoing and active commitment to our community and includes collaboration and feedback on resources and services.” She added improving conditions for students struggling with substance use is included in the President's Initiative for Mental Health

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the U staff qualified to counsel on substance use disorders. The above version is correct.

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