Stigmatizing addiction is antithetical to facilitating recovery. That was the main takeaway from “Straight Stuff,” an event held by the RCNJ Roadrunner Recovery Allies Fusion Support group on March 10. Four Ramapo students formed a panel to share their perspectives on addiction, recovery and support — two as survivors and two as allies.
Senior Casey and junior Arielle, whose last names have been omitted, opened by discussing their pasts with the intention of dismantling stereotypes about addicts.
"Everyone has been subjected to some prejudice during their lifetime," Casey said. The same way anyone can be the subject of negative assumptions, anyone can become an addict. Often the two experiences overlap due to existing misconceptions about substance abuse.
The stressful environments at the first two colleges Casey attended exacerbated his mental and physical health issues. He began associating with people who frequently used drugs and alcohol.
"It was an easier coping mechanism than actually dealing with the root of my emotions,” he explained.
Arielle cited mental health issues and trauma as the reasons she sought stability through drugs. The mental and physical pains of withdrawal pushed her to “get high again or die trying.”
They are not alone. According to the National Library of Medicine, “37% of college students have used an illicit drug… and abused alcohol on a regular basis.” Students with substance use disorder are more likely to take risks, have poor academic performances and experience negative health effects.
The journey to recovery is complicated and unique for everyone, but readjusting to sober life almost always requires access to rehabilitation resources and support from loved ones.
When Casey dropped out of college and his parents realized the extent of his issues, they directed him to a rehabilitation program. His past experiences have inspired him to "become an advocate for a passionate arts student" like himself.
"I really want to stress that I am not strange or different from anyone else," he said. The double standard in how physically ill people receive sympathy while mentally ill people are rebuked and isolated needs to be reassessed. Casey encouraged attendees to foster change by reevaluating their behaviors and holding people who joke about stereotypes accountable.
When health insurance complications prevented Arielle from participating in a detox program, remembering her friends' and family’s support helped her achieve and maintain sobriety. "I felt like a lost cause for so long, I was shocked that someone was trying to help me," she said. Finding a therapist and a psychiatrist were vital to securing a healthier life.
Now a member of Ramapo’s Social Work Program, Arielle strives to destigmatize substance use disorders. "Human connection is powerful, especially to those who are struggling with addiction," she said.
A common theme of the Q&A portion focused on how to better allyship. If someone suspects their loved one is an addict, Arielle suggests a non-judgemental approach that facilitates an open conversation.
Friends of a student in recovery should be cognizant of how their plans might affect their peers. Communication is key to ensuring everyone is comfortable. Small acts of kindness go a long way, and being a good listener is an invaluable skill.
There are many ways Ramapo College can foster a more supportive environment for students dealing with addiction. Creating a marker similar to the “SAFE ZONE TRAINED” stickers outside of certain professors’ offices to indicate faculty members trained in dealing with addiction could help students if needed.
Having narcan available on campus and ensuring Public Safety is trained to use it could save lives. Coordinator of Substance Use Disorder Prevention and Recovery Programs Cory Rosenkranz clarified why that is not already a reality. Stigma prevents the college from approving the expensive purchase and Public Safety does not want to be the party responsible for employing it.
Existing services at Ramapo include the Roadrunner Collegiate Recovery Program, which offers “a supportive community of like-minded students who have chosen to live a substance-free lifestyle” to students in recovery and allies. Anyone can apply, and joining the program can be a gateway to advocating for improvement on campus.