Opening keynote speaker, clinician and recovery advocate Chris Paulson took the stage at the fifth annual California Unified Collegiate Recovery Conference to share his experiences of drug use as a college student at UC Santa Barbara.

Photo by Jene Estrada.
Chris Paulson delivers his keynote address during the Fifth Annual California Unified Collegiate Recovery Conference. A former UC student, Paulson shared his experiences with addiction, and emphasized the importance of a connected community in fostering recovery. Photo by Jene Estrada.

Paulson recalled his addiction as one driven by many sources including home life troubles, family members struggling with addiction and a desire to rebel and find himself.

“For some, [college is] breaking away from the confines of family, but no matter what, it’s this big surge of freedom,” Paulson said. “I found myself finally free to express myself, and that turned into really, really bad things. I did stupid things, and I ran my life into the ground.”

On Nov. 12-13, about 250 students, staff members and specialists convened to discuss drug and alcohol addiction on college campuses. For the first time, UC Santa Cruz hosted the fifth annual two-day conference that changes location every year. It consisted of a full day of speakers and breakout sessions, which discussed topics ranging from managing triggers to using recovery tools.

College students are at a higher risk of addiction due to stress, course load, curiosity, peer pressure and a heightened sense of freedom, Paulson said.  According to the Washington Post, over 80 percent of students in U.S. colleges drink alcohol, and an additional 50 percent abuse marijuana, according to the Addiction Center. Abusing these substances leads to a higher risk of assault, injury, unprotected sex and impaired driving, according to Drug Watch.

“What I’ve seen is this huge emergence of abuse in the 18 to 26 demographic,” Paulson said. “There’s something happening in our world that needs to be looked at, and that’s why it’s important that everyone in this room is here.”

In the past year, UCSC has reported four fatal drug overdoses, two drug busts and an increase in marijuana use on campus. Last March, six students were arrested with more than 5,000 ecstasy pills, and several UCSC students were involved in a fatal car crash involving opiates and marijuana.

These drug arrests stigmatize the campus, said fourth-year art and psychology student and planning committee member Leslie Magana. “We want to show that we are supporting our students. That’s the biggest thing that will help students right now — feeling like they are being supported by the administration,” Magana said.

Students that want to seek help for drug addiction are referred to Jorge Bru, alcohol and other drug educator at Student Health Outreach and Promotion (SHOP). Bru puts them through a process called “basics,” which involves a one-on-one meeting and a survey to explore the best process to aid that student in recovery. The program is not punitive and is driven by the individual students’ desires for recovery.

“Sometimes people come in really nervous and scared, and they’re maybe a little on the defensive thinking I’m going to wag the finger at them and say ‘You did something wrong, and you got to stop,’” Bru said. “That’s not the approach we take. Our philosophy at SHOP is unconditional positive regard.”

Bru then assigns the student either additional one-on-one meetings, refers them to off-campus facilities or refers them to The Cove — a free on-campus, student-run recovery space, which hosts meetings and events for recovering students.

“It’s a safe place to go to, be heard and see what the next step is for you,” Bru said.

This basics program is free for all students who self-refer and $50 for students who are referred by UCSC staff members like RAs, professors or college administration/advisors.

In previous years UCSC offered on-campus community housing specifically for students in recovery. Those who lived in these houses reported increases in sobriety to SHOP, saying that the community living was helpful. UCSC cut that housing this year when more beds were set aside than were filled. Students can request living in substance free halls in dormitories on campus.

With an increase in college students facing addiction each year, the need for recovery resources is increasing. Hosting a drug recovery conference allows attendees to discuss what the university’s responsibility is in harm reduction, especially as students’ stress levels increase due to newfound financial responsibility and housing displacement and uncertainty, which are all at the core of addiction within the college student demographic.

“The defining nature of addiction, in my opinion, [is] continuing to use despite negative consequences. The opposite of addiction is connection,” said keynote speaker Chris Paulson. “Events like this and open discussion are necessary because this is where change takes place.”