By Guest Columnist TERESA WREN JOHNSTON, director of the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery at Kennesaw State University and founding president of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education
In a world where mental health and substance use disorders get top billing only when a tragedy occurs to a celebrity, a famous athlete or a music superstar, it is easy to overlook the millions of people suffering unnoticed.
When the headlines read heroin overdose, death by suicide or famous entertainer enters treatment, we stand up and take notice; in fact, we can’t get enough.
As people race to respond to the tragedies by blogging, tweeting and posting on Facebook, we are assaulted by the stigma and ignorance of a society that remains woefully uneducated about mental health in general and addiction specifically.
Stigma, judgment and misinformation continue to prevail in a society that should know better. Comments where individuals claim the very criteria for a diagnosed condition as the cure for the condition itself does more harm than good. Comments like, “It was his choice to take his life” or “If she would just stop using the substance she would be fine,” continue to propagate the notion that character and willpower are the answer.
If character and willpower are the problem, then our society can continue to dismiss the public health crisis facing this nation because of substance use and absolve itself of all responsibility.
The truth is that mental illness and addiction directly affect the brain. Once affected, the very central mechanism influencing decisions and behaviors, the brain, is not functioning in a healthy manner. Have you ever tried to not use your brain, to put it aside when you have to make a decision? The main feature of a substance use disorder is a grouping of cognitive, behavioral and physiological symptoms indicating that an individual continues using the substance despite significant related problems.
In other words, the brain is sick, and as a result we see a pathological pattern of behaviors as the symptoms. Trying to make good, sound decisions with a brain that is not working is like telling someone who has a broken leg to just walk on it until it heals.
If we continue to allow ourselves to label people as problems because of age-old fears and worn-out misconceptions, we are essentially turning our backs and telling them that they are not worthy of our help, our time and our resources. As a nation that is becoming increasingly more dependent on the successful outcome of its younger generations, we simply cannot afford to ignore this growing epidemic.
According to SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the most recent statistics in the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed 22 percent of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 used illicit drugs. This was similar to the rate among non-college students.
As the young adult population is dying in epidemic numbers from drug-related unintentional injuries, we must take new and innovative approaches to education, intervention and recovery.Higher education with its ability to impact, teach and intervene on this age group is the ideal location for innovative approaches, and Kennesaw State University is helping to lead the way in Georgia.
As the director of Kennesaw State University’s Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery where students in recovery from addiction participate in a peer recovery program, I see their struggles and their successes every day.
Our program provides the much-needed support for social and psychological change as these students recover from addiction. Our job is to provide these students with a continuum of care that offers opportunity and hope, while empowering them to succeed in college and in life.
It’s a big job, because it is estimated that one in five young adults 18 to 25 suffer from what could be categorized as a substance use disorder. Some of these students have acknowledged their addictions, sought treatment for them and have incorporated into their lives strong, successful recovery programs. For these often unseen and anonymous students working a program and living committed to recovery, who do the hard work of self-reflection and community building – I say, BRAVO!
Finding resources for the recovering addict and alcoholic on the college campus today is limited. Money is found for prevention, education and even to some degree treatment for this population, but barriers spring up when we admit we have alcoholics and addicts on the campus and are offering recovery support.
Supporting recovery in college to some may imply we are admitting that we have a problem. However, I submit that supporting recovery on the college campus does not mean we have a problem; on the contrary, it means we have a solution. Kennesaw State University has found a successful solution that could be replicated on other college campuses in the state.
In order to advance at all in our handling of addiction and these precious human resources, we as a society must open our minds and the doors of our universities and colleges to offer hope and a visible community of support.
You can literally take the first step in that direction by joining us in our annual Run for Recovery. It will be held on the Kennesaw State campus on Sept. 27, as we celebrate National Recovery month.