Creating Inclusive Spaces for Addiction

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the specter of isolation and suffering has caused mental health to worsen for many people around the world. A particularly concerning outcome of this rise in mental health issues is that of addiction or addictive behaviors,1 which is exacerbated during our upcoming season. We explore the relationship of addiction with systems of oppression, substance use/addiction in higher education, and offer ways to include people who are in recovery or are sober to combat these negative narratives.

Reflect: What are our societal perspectives of addiction?

Who do you see when you think of the word “addiction”? Who gets positively represented in addiction media and who gets negatively represented? Before jumping into discussion about addiction in higher education, it’s important to point out how addiction narratives have erased and/or harmed marginalized communities. Women were absent in addiction research until the 1990s,3 leading to significant misunderstanding about gender differences in addiction patterns that are connected to women’s social experiences.4 People of Color (especially Black people) have been disproportionately demonized and punished for substance use,5, 6 as policy has been/continues to be structured by systemic racism. Because experiences with oppression correlate heavily with addiction risk, those at the intersections of systemic oppressions (such as Women of Color) are most harmed by erasure/stigma.7, 8

Learn: Addiction and Higher Education

Much research has examined how addiction affects college students, who are consistently entrenched in a very drinking-/drug-taking-heavy environment during college.9 Following the general college-going population in recent years, there have been significant increases in harmful substance use in young adult women (5.3 million of whom struggled with alcohol).10 In this increase, students have begun to non-medically use prescription stimulants to cope with increasing academic stress.11 Heavy use/addiction can have negative physical, emotional, mental, and academic consequences for college students.12, 13 Substance use and addiction is less understood in faculty and staff. Where students have increasingly addressed the stress of college by taking stimulants, stressful work environments have contributed to an increase in harmful alcohol use amongst faculty.14 Disclosure of addiction among faculty members, however, is exceedingly rare.15 The pressures of appearing sociable in professional settings (like conference happy hours) and reputable on the career path (especially on the tenure track) make navigating academia while in recovery incredibly difficult.16, 17 Both students and faculty in recovery use a variety of strategies in substance-related contexts to avoid negative social consequences (such as making jokes),18, 19 often only disclosing recovery if perceived costs are insignificant.20

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