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Examining college students in recovery from a Substance Use Disorder through interpretative phenomenological analysis




Worfler, Kelsey Rae, author
Quijano, Louise, advisor
Gandy, John, committee member
Miller, Lisa, committee member

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The purpose of this study was to examine the dichotomous relationship of Substance Use Disorder (SUD) recovery and the collegiate environment. Increasingly, academic institutions are implementing Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) to address these environmental challenges and specifically support their students in recovery maintenance from a SUD. By conducting a needs assessment, the challenges recovering college students confront in this environment were investigated, as well as the specific needs of this minority student population. A review of current literature indicated previous studies focused on established CRPs and recovering students already engaged with these resources. This study differed greatly in that it was conducted at Colorado State University (CSU), an academic institution currently lacking campus-based SUD recovery resources; thus this study revealed the cognitions on the challenges and needs of recovering college students who, despite a lack of acknowledgement, continue to thrive in higher education. CSU is currently in the planning stages of CRP implementation; this needs assessment assisted in determining many effective potential service provisions for a campus-based SUD recovery maintenance program at this institution. Four key informant interviews were conducted with Colorado State University (CSU) students who self-identify as being in recovery maintenance from a SUD and the subsequent qualitative data was examined to extract corroborating themes through the use of Jonathan Smith’s Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). These key informant interviews consisted of nine open-ended questions about the recovering students’ experiences of simultaneously attending college while maintaining their SUD recovery. Although many questions surrounded their cognitions about challenges and needs of this student population, the participants were also requested to discuss other topics pertaining to recovery. The quadripartite IPA process was thoroughly conducted with each interview to determine corroborated “Central Themes” and, concurrently, the transcriptions were consistently referenced to isolate excerpts from participants and validate these themes. This qualitative analysis process is suggested to be most effective when the researcher is extremely knowledgeable about, and/or identifies as a part of, the population being studied; due to this aspect of IPA, specific effort was made to mitigate researcher bias throughout this study (Brocki & Wearden, 2006). This study suggests IPA is an effective explorative method when dissecting smaller amount of qualitative data and discussing the cognitions of individuals who may be hidden or stigmatized within a social system; this method of analysis also proved to be effective in comprehensively assessing characteristics of recovering college students within a given social context. The findings of this study revealed, not only challenges and needs of recovering college students, but also other characteristics pertaining to this student population. This study suggests the two main challenges recovering students confront in the collegiate environment are the environmental influences to reengage in substance abuse and the isolation experienced resulting from stigma associated with not using psychoactive substances while attending higher education. This study additionally suggests the greatest need for recovering college students is to combat this isolation through interacting with likeminded peers who are also committed to recovery lifestyle. Recovering students greatly emphasized the need for sober activities where recovering students could socialize, find mutual support, and fully engage in the college experience, as well as a campus-based locale to find respite from environmental influences. At an academic institution without supportive SUD recovery resources, recovering students desire a CRP that is located in a “safe” campus location, and provides substance-free housing specifically designed for willingly abstinent students. The term safety was referenced multiple times by recovering students; this study suggests these students feel the need to protect themselves, and their SUD recovery, while attending college. Although participants reported difficulties cohabiting off campus with individuals who drink, they assumed residing on campus would pose additional challenges and discussed the of necessity on-campus recovery housing. Concurrently with evaluating the needs and challenges of recovering college students, this study suggests other consistent characteristics exist among this student population. Recovering college students associated the term “recovery” with living differently and consistently making different choices while concurrently not abusing substances. Many attributed their initial success achieving SUD recovery to engaging in Twelve-Step Facilitated Groups (TFGs), such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Although recovering students report varied current attendance at TFGs, they comprehensively reported regularly engaging in both healthy daily habits and activities related to their SUD recovery maintenance program. Using a standardize formula endorsed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), it is estimated that approximately 450 CSU students identify as being in recovery maintenance from a SUD and/or are currently seeking treatment for their problem (Texas Technical University [TTU], 2005). This study lastly suggests recovering college students desire acknowledgement within their academic institution, as well as the opportunity to prosper both academically and socially.


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