Combating the opioid epidemic with substance-free college dorms

The recent untimely death of music icon Prince has refocused our attention on prescription painkillers. But the problem has been a growing one for sometime, even within many colleges and universities. In fact, many university campuses have been trying to help combat the opioid epidemic by offering substance-free college dorms for students struggling with addiction.

Find out how colleges are combating the opioid epidemic. (Credit: Public Health Watch)

Find out how colleges are combating the opioid epidemic. (Credit: Public Health Watch)

These so-called “sober dorms” are becoming more popular as use of illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs have grown.

Substance-free college dorms

Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, pioneered the idea of a substance-free space for students with addictions back in 1988. The current rise in prescription painkiller abuse has turned other colleges onto the importance of the idea as well. The University of Vermont launched a recovery program in 2010, Texas Tech began offering a sober dorm in 2011 and Oregon State University has plans for their own substance-free dorm starting in the fall.

Currently, as many as 150 colleges and universities in 49 states offer recovery programs for students. This is a dramatic increase from even four years ago, when only 35 substance abuse programs existed on university campuses, according to

Defining abuse

So what constitutes drug abuse? If you take any prescription drug without a prescription or in a manner different than how it was prescribed, that is drug abuse. Use of any illegal drug, even a non-pharmaceutical version of a prescription painkiller is abuse, which is what is occurring with the current opioid epidemic.

Alcohol is a bit trickier to define, but basically if you are drinking so much that you are unable to meet your obligations to school or whatever, you have an alcohol abuse problem. Transforming Youth Recovery cites research that says 90 percent of substance abuse issues arise between the ages of 12 and 20, and that 21 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 21 meet the diagnosis for a substance abuse disorder.

Rise of the opioid epidemic

The drug that Prince accidentally overdosed on was fentanyl, which became available in the 1960s and has been used to manage pain, particularly in cancer patients. According to the CDC, fentanyl “is 50-100 times more potent than morphine.”

As a result of a recent spike in deaths connected to these prescription painkillers, the CDC has issued a health advisory. Between 2013 and 2014, more than 700 fentanyl-related overdose deaths were reported and most of those were the result of illegally manufactured versions of the drug.

Not sure if you, or a friend, may be struggling with an addition to prescription painkillers, alcohol or another illegal drug? Signs of a problem include rapid mood swings, changes in sleeping habits, behavioral changes such as stealing, lying or isolation from friends or noticeable weight loss. Find out what resources your college or university offers if you suspect that you or a friend has a problem. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), has found that 95 percent of college students who do enter recovery programs are able to maintain their sobriety without a relapse, whereas outside of college, relapses happen 40 to 60 percent of the time.

Recovery, not treatment

While it is great news that more and more university campuses are stepping up to create substance-free college dorms for students, it is important to understand that most of these programs are not true treatment programs. Rather they are intended for students who are already in recovery and who need a space that is safe to continue their sobriety, whether it is from alcohol or prescription painkillers or other illegal drugs.

In addition to substance-free dorms, how else can university campuses help students who are addicted to prescription painkillers or other drugs and alcohol? Let us know in the comments.

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