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College officials consider recovery house for substance abusers

ST. CLOUD -- As many as 1 million college students nationwide meet the criteria for alcohol dependency, according to studies measuring substance abuse.

ST. CLOUD -- As many as 1 million college students nationwide meet the criteria for alcohol dependency, according to studies measuring substance abuse.

And a national study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2007 showed that about one-third of the 1.8 million admissions to alcohol and drug treatment programs are for people 18 to 29 years old.

The pervasive substance abuse by some college students has led to an expansion of college-based recovery programs and, at some colleges, residences dedicated for students in recovery.

St. Cloud State University is talking about opening a residence for students who have gone through drug or alcohol treatment and who want to start or resume their college careers. Although the discussions at St. Cloud State are in the early stages, university officials plan visits to see such programs at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and at Texas Tech.

And they're not alone.


Southern Methodist University is exploring the possibility of starting a residential recovery program, said Dr. John Sanger, director of alcohol and drug abuse prevention at the SMU Memorial Health Center.

The University of Vermont started a residential recovery program last fall and will expand it next academic year, said Amy Boyd, director of health promotion services for the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Vermont and director of the Health and Wellness Residential Learning Community.

The University of Colorado had a program that was disbanded, but it is exploring instituting a new one that would be similar in some respects to what it had, said Dr. Donald Misch, assistant vice chancellor at the Colorado's Wardenburg Health Center.

The idea of a recovery house for students who have completed treatment is the next step in St. Cloud State's residential life mission of addressing alcohol and drug abuse by students, said Robert Reff, interim assistant dean of students for chemical health and outreach programming.

"On my radar has always been, 'How are we supporting students in recovery?' They're on campus currently," Reff said. "And could we also recruit and be a home for students in recovery?"

St. Cloud State is using Augsburg College's StepUp program as a model. It's based on a 12-step program, and students have to be sober for six months before they can apply to StepUp. The program makes counselors available to students for 30-minute weekly sessions.

Attendance at a weekly "circle meeting" also is required. It's a time when announcements are made, support is offered and celebrations take place, said Patrice Salmeri, director of StepUp at Augsburg. Students are required to sign and abide by a behavioral contract that stresses balanced and healthful living.

StepUp started in 1997 with 23 students and has about 75 students this year, Salmeri said.


Not all college and university programs have a residential component to their recovery support program. Augsburg's 75 residential spaces are about 60 percent of the residential recovery house spaces at U.S. colleges and universities, Salmeri said.

Having that living space dedicated for recovering students is crucial for their health and educational development, she said.

Students who go through treatment and are housed in dorms or houses where roommates drink or use drugs say such a living arrangement "is like sending (them) back to the bar," Salmeri said.

A sober house provides support and a safe place for recovering students with students who face similar challenges, said Phillip Hernandez, coordinator of leadership programs and residential life conduct at St. Cloud State. He came to St. Cloud State after leading the residential life portion of the StepUp program at Augsburg.

"The space is important," Hernandez said, "to be able to work on your work and study the things you need to study without worrying about the triggers, the loud people."

Jason Lindberg is a 33-year-old second-year student at St. Cloud State who is in recovery. He lives off-campus and sees around him the "Thirsty Thursday and Wet Wednesdays, or whatever it is. It's frustrating," he said.

"I need an area on campus, or near it, that's a legitimately enforceable zone," he said. "An area that is reliable to be free from substance use and abuse."

St. Cloud State would need a house, preferably near campus, to start with a small group of students, Reff said. In a time of challenges for higher education financing, the money is always a concern.


But the university's foundation is supportive, Reff said, and there is some money coming in from a St. Cloud diversion program on first-time alcohol offenses.

Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, professor and director of religious studies at St. Cloud State, has had several students come to him and ask for support in their ongoing battles with addiction, he said.

"Having a dorm committed to sobriety would be the single biggest statement this campus could make regarding the epidemic of alcoholism on college campuses," Edelheit said.

And it would fill a need for graduating high school students, said Anne Lucasse, program facilitator at City West Academy, a sober high school in Eden Prairie School District.

"There's a huge need" for college-level recovery support programs, she said, especially at public universities that are more affordable than private institutions such as Augsburg.

"The more safety nets that we can have in place for our students, the better off we'll be," she said.


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