The conference room that is home to the LMU Center for Collegiate Recovery contains a number of items: red chairs, a large television, some shelves, and, in the corner, a deconstructed drum kit. The kit is one of many instruments that is on-and-off stored there by the Lions for Recovery Band, an informal group of students in recovery who embrace music as a form of therapy. This, and the often occupied couch, chairs, and tables that populate its main room, make the designated safe space feel like a home.
College campuses are notorious for cultivating a culture of binge drinking and substance abuse, often driven by academic stressors, social anxieties, and the explorative nature of college life. The LMU Center for Collegiate Recovery, located in Malone 113, understands this reality and provides a safe space for students seeking assistance in any and all aspects of the recovery process.
“There’s a whole wide range of students in recovery, whether that be sobriety or moderation or sober curious,” said Angela O’Malley, the Associate Director for Student Conduct & Recovery. “I want people to know that we are visible on the Bluff and that we are keeping recovery visible on the Bluff and that we are here and we’re open and we’re looking for allies too.”
The recovery center offers numerous resources in their effort to mitigate substance abuse on campus. Events and meetings occur daily, offering support to a variety of students facing different circumstances, ranging from alcohol and substance use to negative self image and mental health struggles. These meetings include AA Meetings, self-harm and eating dysregulation support groups, Al-Anon, Cannabis Moderation, and Mindfulness and Movement.
Bradley Smith is a Substance Use Disorders Specialist and the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery at LMU. His approach to addressing substance use on LMU’s campus, he says, is “straight talk.” He openly explores the nuances of LMU’s social scene that are often left unaddressed by most members of the administration.
“[We’re talking] about sex and drugs and alcohol…So we hit the big three,” said Smith. “We recognize this as a binge drinking, sexually charged culture. We recognize that it is developmentally appropriate and culturally sanctioned to boundary test and to thrill seek.”
A national survey conducted by the American College Health Association, reported that 72.8% of students experience moderate or severe psychological distress. Smith notes that the nature of college students’ desire to escape through substances is, in part, the result of an overall decline in mental health. In that context, sobriety can feel like a difficult feat.
“Staying in recovery and understanding why you’re in recovery, we can’t separate that from the conditions of our world” he said. “They’ve made sophisticated assessments of their world…checking out is fundamentally defensible for many of them, whether it’s alcohol on the weekends, whether it’s marijuana every day…it’s all a function of community mental health, of our collective health as human beings.”
Smith says the culture cultivated in the recovery community at LMU is not one reflective of shame. Smith recognizes the importance of framing substance abuse as a natural struggle.
“Escape…[is a] profoundly human thing. We don’t bad-mouth the users…We don’t call people addicts or alcoholics here,” Smith said. “We think there are people trying to make sense of the experience of their lives or the conditions of where they find themselves.”
Both Smith and O’Malley argue that cultivating community and a culture of support is at the forefront of the work that they do. Lions for Recovery is a student group, an extension of the Center for Collegiate Recovery, rooted in providing community and support for those who need it. The group is composed of both allies and students who have sought out the services of the recovery center.
Braden McSwigan, a student involved in Lions for Recovery, said that sobriety can be a source of relief. He notes that the nature of substance abuse masquerading as a norm in the college experience can be dangerous.
“Last year I was very disconnected and my focus was elsewhere from school…I was focused [on] the parties,” he said. “So when you don’t have that on your plate and you’re…looking forward to doing healthy stuff, like exercising or going to the beach, it becomes more consistent than not having a routine.”
Lions for Recovery provides a like-minded community for those struggling among the normalization of substance abuse in college. A student who asked to remain anonymous described the difficulties associated with a culture of partying and how it can become precarious.
“It didn’t click in my brain that it was a problem for me because everyone is like, ‘Oh, we’re young, like we’re in college. It’s just what we do’ and it took such a long time for me to be like, oh wait, actually this is really not benefiting me at all,” the source said.
They found a sense of community in the Lions for Recovery band, where students participate in jam sessions with fellow students and faculty. The band, a group where all are welcome, is one of the services that the center provides that allows students to make music as a form of therapy.
“It shows me that people that struggle the same way I do are like, they’re with me,” they said. “We’re all having fun. Like it’s just genuinely a safe space.”
Smith said that entering into the realm of recovery can be burdensome, particularly when the culture of drug and alcohol abuse can feel suffocating on a college campus. As a result, he orients his philosophy around harm reduction. He notes that abstinence is not for everyone, but small steps and analyzing the problem are necessary to healing.
“I mean, in a world that’s consuming itself to distraction or where a distraction is the most important thing…to be in recovery. That’s the radical,” he said. “Sober is the new drunk.”