Trauma and Addiction in College

By Elizabeth Brico 04/02/18

The idea of students partying with alcohol or studying with speed is so common that we take these experiences for granted. But what would it look like to take these behaviors seriously instead?

Black and white image of depressed woman student with backpack, leaning with one hand against lockers.

If you didn't know how I spent the last four years of my life before returning to finish college, you probably wouldn't have looked at me and thought, "she's doomed to become addicted to heroin." I had good grades, despite being a single mother—mostly As and a couple Bs. I was active and interested, even staging an original play in my free time. When I submitted several poems to the literary magazine they did not argue over whether to publish my work, but rather over which piece to publish. At the start of my senior year, I was elected president of the Seattle University Literary Committee, though my duties would fall to the wayside as addiction gradually consumed my life.

Home was another story. At home, I found myself drifting from my studies to contemplate suicide. At home, I spent less and less time with my son, opting to send him to family while I lost myself and my memories in a bottle, a pill, or a tin foil of heroin. At home, and in class, and everywhere, I felt the weight of the last four years bearing down on me with a suffocating and seemingly intractable force. I spent those years with my son's biological father, and I experienced sexual abuse, beatings, seizure-inducing strangulation, kidnapping, lies, and constant fear. Without opioids, I was drowning in those four years. On opioids, I was—for a few moments—free.

I must have been an outlier, right? College culture might be flooded with alcohol and marijuana and maybe a line of cocaine here and there, but heroin? That's not something we associate with kids smart and driven enough to get into college. But empirical evidence has repudiated the notions that drug use and addiction are indicators of low intelligence, moral failure, or mental weakness, despite the stereotypes. Addiction to heroin and other opioids is, instead, strongly correlated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and similar mental health issues. An estimated 67 to 84 percent of new college students have a history of trauma, with some studies finding as many as 17 percent with signs of PTSD. That's not including students with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or a personality disorder; all conditions that have a high comorbidity with substance use.

In a study published by the Florida House Experience, a mental health and addiction treatment center that collaborates with several local universities including the University of Miami and Florida International University, the majority of students interviewed reported that it was "very easy" or "easy" to access drugs through their peers. Nearly half reported buying drugs on campus at some point during their academic tenure. This wasn't just kids smoking pot—the same study found that 14 percent of students reported trading sex for drugs while in college. Heroin and other opiates were the second most likely drug to be purchased using sex. Cocaine was the first.

Why is it that the actual experience of college is, for some, so much more damaging than the enriching experience parents expect for their kids? For me, trauma was a large part of the problem, but a lack of perceived resources was also a major contributor. PTSD lends itself to feelings of persecution, so it's hard for me to know if my playwriting teacher despised me as much as I thought she did, or if the English teacher who forced me to participate in a triggering activity was as aggressive as I remember, but I am certain that nobody approached me as an undergrad and offered to help. And why should they? Recreational intoxication is so commonplace during college that my sleepiness and cranky attitude were probably mistaken for a hangover.  I wonder if anyone at all suspected just how bad things were.

Stephenie Black-Nunn, who now works as a social worker at a substance use disorder treatment facility, says that when she began college as a young mother, studying involved a "30 pack of alcohol or smoking marijuana," and that she also used cocaine and methamphetamine on a regular basis. She reports that recovery resources were non-existent at Amarillo College, which she attended before transferring to University of North Texas-Denton for her bachelor's degree. In fact, she didn't even know that collegiate recovery programs existed until grad school, when she was already eight years sober. It took intervention from Child Protective Services—and, she recognizes, a dose of good fortune when it came to the case worker she was assigned—before she managed to achieve sobriety. By then, she had already dropped out of community college, though she was fortunate enough to be able to return and eventually pursue a master's degree in clinical social work. In 2015, while working with the advocacy group Young People In Recovery, she attempted to start a student recovery group at Amarillo College, but was barred when school officials claimed they did not have the resources necessary to address a potential mental health crisis.

Chase Holleman, a social worker at his alma mater University of North Carolina-Greensboro, says that when he first began college at UNC-Wilmington in 2010, he was a recreational drug user who often skipped class to drink booze or get high. After a serious assault, he was prescribed opioid painkillers, which eventually led him to try heroin. Although he managed to attend summer school and turn his poor grades around, he relapsed on opioids when he returned to college. After several attempts at sobriety and struggles at school, he overdosed in his dorm room. He survived, but was then "invited to leave" the university.

Drug policies in the United States are notoriously ignorant when it comes to the science of addiction. Despite valiant efforts by doctors, advocates, and health policy officials, that does not appear to shifting at the national level; the Trump administration has repeatedly endorsed a renewed "war on drugs" style approach that favors punishment over treatment. Where does this leave college students who become addicted to heroin, prescription medication, or other substances? Federal grants and loans are often unavailable to students with criminal records, meaning that if a student gets caught selling or possessing drugs, he could lose his ability to attend school—even if he gets sober later. It also means that schools are under pressure to place students on suspension or "invite them to leave" if they are caught using drugs on campus.

Student drug and alcohol use is no secret. How many college ragers have we seen on screen, drunk student antics often depicted as part of a comedic trope? The idea of students partying with pot and alcohol or studying with coke and speed is so common that we take these experiences for granted. But what would it look like to take these behaviors seriously instead? It's true that not every drug user will develop a substance use disorder, but young people who try drugs are at a higher than average risk of becoming addicted. And for students in recovery, college campuses are a source of constant temptation. Yet being caught intoxicated on campus is still more likely to result in punitive measures than treatment—and the use of highly stigmatized drugs like heroin barely hits the register when people think about college students.

Some schools do offer treatment services on campus, but whether or not they are known and available to all students remains in question. For example, Seattle University, where I earned my bachelor's degree, has a counseling and psychological services center that includes a spectrum of addiction services. The center existed when I was a student, but I knew nothing about it. Despite being open about my PTSD diagnosis and abuse history, I never received a referral. If it was ever mentioned to me at all, it didn't make enough of an impression for me to remember the conversation. Holleman likewise admits that, before his overdose, the dean of his university reached out and attempted to refer him to treatment. He declined, telling her— falsely—that his substance use was in the past. The universities aren't necessarily to blame for these oversights; managing thousands of students is a daunting task, and if someone doesn't yet wish to recover, forcing them to try won't change that.

Still, I can't help but wonder what it would be like if we equipped every campus with an open, obvious, and compassionate treatment center tailored to the needs of students.

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Elizabeth Brico is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She got her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, where she justified spending more time shooting dope than doing homework because William Burroughs once taught there. Now, she writes about trauma, addiction, and recovery on her blog Betty's Battleground. She's also a regular contributor to the PTSD blog on HealthyPlace, and freelances as much as she can for The Fix and Tonic/VICE. Her work has also appeared on VoxStatOzyTalk PovertyRacked, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. Find her portfolio and ramblings about writing on, or stalk her on Twitter: @elizabethbrico (if you're interesting, she might even stalk you back).