fb-pixel Skip to main content

Many colleges still in denial about need for recovery services

Jack Barkowski, a student at UMass Boston, hopes to build have a career in marine biology. He has had to cope with addiction and recovery along the way.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Jack Barkowski felt nervous about returning to college. He had spent the summer of 2017 not waiting tables or lifeguarding but painfully detoxing from tranquilizers and adjusting to life without drugs and alcohol. And he was still living in a halfway house when school began.

How would he manage classes and social life while maintaining his sobriety and sticking to the house rules?

The answer, he soon learned, was straightforward, and universal: with support from others like him. And, luckily, he was attending a school where such help is available, the University of Massachusetts Boston.

During the first week of fall semester, Barkowski learned about a group of students in recovery who meet weekly and organize substance-free activities.


“It was a welcoming feeling to be surrounded by people who have been through what I was going through, and come out on the other side,” he said.

Barkowski, 24, who expects to graduate in December and pursue a career in marine biology, said he would not have made it without the support of the Collegiate Recovery Program, sponsored by University Health Services.

Barkowski tapped into a national movement to support college students in recovery, which is beginning to gain traction in the Boston area, much of it through student-led efforts. Despite the concentration of colleges in the region, and the heightened attention to opioid addiction in Massachusetts, few resources are available to serve young adults struggling with substance use.

But that is starting to change, spurred in part by the opioid crisis, which made addiction a much-discussed public concern. Tufts University, for example, just opened an eight-bed residence for students in recovery. Harvard has established a substance use disorders team. Northeastern screens students for drug problems and intervenes.

“Most of the Boston schools are still kind of in the early stages” of addressing addiction, said Timothy Rabolt, executive director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, a national group of collegiate recovery programs and advocates. “It’s turning in the right direction. It’s just not quick enough.”


Many colleges around the country aren’t aware of the need, or just don’t want to acknowledge it, Rabolt said: “The overall feeling from the top administrators is: ‘We don’t have those students at this school.’ ”

Of course, all colleges have such students. With drug and alcohol use rampant on campuses, some students inevitably run into difficulties, while others are recovering from addiction and need help staying sober in what has been called a “recovery-hostile environment.”

More than three-quarters of college students drink alcohol, and 67 percent report having gotten drunk, according to a 2018 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Just over half have used marijuana in their lifetime, more than a quarter have taken illicit drugs other than marijuana, and 13 percent have taken amphetamines, the survey found.

But tackling drug use on campus means acknowledging it, and that can be a sensitive issue. Indeed, two of the local institutions contacted by the Globe for this article — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College — declined to even discuss what services they provide for students in recovery or struggling with substance use.

And yet, as Rabolt puts it, “This is something where students’ lives are on the line.”

The college years are a crucial interval in a person’s life, an age when newfound freedom combined with stress and campus culture can lead many to hazardous behaviors.


“This is the highest-risk period for the onset of substance use disorder,” said John F. Kelly, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Addiction Recovery Management Service, a program for teenagers and young adults.

Collegiate recovery programs, usually sponsored by university health or counseling services, can attract young people in recovery who otherwise would be reluctant to attend college for fear of losing their support network, Kelly said. In addition, he said, the “substance-free” activities these programs sponsor may even have a ripple effect on college culture, preventing some students from falling into unhealthy drug use.

Excessive drinking has long been a concern on college campuses, and alcohol remains, by far, the most prevalent drug that causes problems. Specialists say that marijuana and stimulants, such as Adderall, are the next most commonly misused drugs.

What about opioids? The data suggest few college students use them — in the NIDA survey, a fraction of 1 percent said they have used heroin, and 6.6 percent have misused painkiller pills.

But the data may not tell the whole story. Students say they’ve seen peers shooting up in bathrooms and know people who died of overdoses shortly after graduating.

People addicted to opioids may come and go before being counted or noticed on campus: Those impaired by opioid addiction are probably more likely to drop out or take a leave, without the university knowing why.


When Harvard students last year proposed installing kits with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone around campus, the university rejected the idea, concerned about logistics, questioning the need for it, and noting that emergency responders already carry the drug. But Kailash Sundaram, a graduate who had pushed the proposal while a student, said Harvard is probably in denial about opioid use on campus and “unwilling to fight the stigma.”

Still, Harvard University Health Services last year established a substance use disorder treatment team, coordinating the work of five clinicians trained to provide outpatient addiction treatment. One leads a support group for students in recovery.

Even if opioids are not that prevalent on campus, Rabolt said, the crisis itself has played an important role by drawing attention to addiction.

About 200 colleges nationwide have some type of program for addiction and recovery, Rabolt said. The best ones have at least one full-time staff member and a space for people to meet.

Many colleges offer “substance-free” housing, but the students who choose such residences aren’t all in recovery; some have religious or personal reasons for avoiding drugs. According to Rabolt, only about a dozen colleges have full-fledged recovery dorms, in which all residents are in recovery and work to support each other’s sobriety.

The oldest such dorm opened in 1988, at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey.

And one of the newest opened in September at Tufts University. The college entered into a partnership with a seven-year-old California company, the Haven at College, to offer an array of new services.


The Haven’s eight-bed sober house requires residents to undergo regular drug testing, observe curfews, attend individual counseling and group meetings, and use a GPS app that keeps track of where they are. Last month, the Haven also opened an outpatient center. It offers counseling, individual and group therapy, and a nine-hour-a-week intensive treatment program, available to any young adult in the region.

While the recovery dorm will help students returning to campus, the outpatient clinic may prevent students with drug problems from having to leave in the first place, said Sophie Pyne, the Haven’s national director of university relations.

Other local universities don’t offer such extensive programs, but provide some services. Boston University has a Collegiate Recovery Program similar to the one at UMass Boston; the program connects students in recovery in several ways, including by e-mail, and sponsors substance-free events for them. UMass Amherst has a “Fresh and Sober” support program for those new to recovery or questioning their alcohol and drug use.

Northeastern University offers the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention of College Students (BASICS) program to help re-direct students who have started to have trouble with alcohol or drugs.

At UMass Boston, the Collegiate Recovery Program is vital and active — but longs for a home. The group has no designated space and reconvenes in a different classroom each semester. Students have requested a small lounge with a few chairs and a coffee machine, where people could meet casually at any time, but space and money are tight.

“We’ve lost students who have come to our meetings once or twice and then they don’t come back because our classroom is constantly changing,” said Barkowski, the UMass student.

The UMass Collegiate Recovery Program started about eight years ago, when three students — after gradually realizing they were all secretly in recovery — asked Linda J. Dunphy, director of the Health Education and Wellness Program, for help setting up a peer support group. It wasn’t in her job description then, but recovery support has become her passion.

Although it’s more official now, the program hinges on the fervor of Dunphy and a handful of students.

“Collegiate recovery is so grass-roots right now,” said Lina Abdalla, who helped run the program while doing graduate work at UMass Boston. She has moved on but is looking for someone to replace her. “We’re trying so hard to keep this alive,” she said.

A group of students, most from UMass Boston, have formed Greater Boston Collegiate Recovery, which aims to connect students from different campuses who are in recovery. Abdalla has just started work on a website for the group.

Barkowski said the recovery group made a world of difference for him. At his first meeting, he explained that his calculus class conflicted with obligations at the halfway house. The other members urged him to discuss it with his calculus teacher. He did, and the teacher accommodated Barkowski’s schedule.

“Had I not gotten such good advice, I probably would have just dropped calculus class,” he said.

“I kept going back [to the group] because everyone was so welcoming, so supportive, and actually so diverse,” he said. The meeting included undergrads, graduate students, faculty, and staff.

“It was amazing to see so many people with so many different backgrounds, all in one room, dealing with the same issues,” Barkowski said. In the meetings, each participant raises issues of concern and seeks advice from peers; the group doesn’t subscribe to any particular 12-step philosophy, but offers similar support.

Barkowski expects to graduate in December with a degree in environmental science. He is applying to graduate school and also has job offers working with marine mammals.

Such stories are heartening examples of what recovery support can accomplish, said Kelly, of Mass. General.

“When you meet these young people in recovery and they’re getting the support they need — boy, the energy,” Kelly said. “It’s a great, buoyant thing. Not only are they in remission, they’re instilling hope for the future.”

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer