Implicit beliefs about addiction often frame access to support systems for students in recovery or in need of treatment. Belittling labels such as “addict,” “junkie,” “stoner,” “loser,” and the like serve to preserve implicit beliefs that people struggling with an addiction are morally or emotionally inferior to their non-substance dependent peers. Implicit biases related to substance use and stigma are seldom discussed on college campuses. Yet, the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds young adults (18-25) have the greatest prevalence (1 in 7) for a substance use disorder, followed by adults aged 26 or older (1 in 15).

image of Delores Cimini
Thomas Hall, Ph.D.

The “sober” majority has strong beliefs about types and causes of addiction. These beliefs influence narratives related to recovery support. For example, while 75 percent of Americans believe recovery from addiction is possible, 20 percent report they would think less of a friend/relative if they discovered that person is in recovery from an addiction, and 30 percent would think less of a person who disclosed a current addiction. The first step in addressing sober privilege (i.e., the idea that sober students should be privileged relative to substance-dependent students) is to recognize that it exists as a systemic bias that runs throughout the higher education campus culture.
Recently, a student in recovery shared with me his encounter with a medical professional. He asked to have his recovery status noted in his medical record to make certain he was never prescribed an opioid or benzodiazepine. However, instead of being supported, he was advised against noting his recovery status. His provider explained “doctors jump to conclusions and think junkie when they see a drug abuse alert.” He reported feeling embarrassed and disheartened. He is now less inclined to openly share his recovery. A student who shared his recovery in a social work class was later admonished by his professor—“You should think twice about being so open, people will talk about you.”
A few months ago I overheard a community member comment that a $250 book scholarship for students in recovery “rewarded” poor decisions. Another professional was shocked after hearing some colleges offered on-campus 12-step meetings for staff and faculty. She emphatically stated “If I was in recovery (she wasn’t) there is no way I would go to a meeting on campus…people might talk about me.”
Implicit bias also leads to offering or withholding support based on socially constructed hierarchies of addiction. For example, on-campus Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are seldom questioned, but misgivings about hosting Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings on campus are often based on negative stereotypes about past drug use. While apprehensions are nuanced as safety concerns, the implicit message is “undesirables” or “shady” characters may attend campus-based NA meetings.
Campus leaders need to be more aware of the stigma of recovery and how to better support their students. Ultimately, campuses benefit when addiction recovery narratives are reframed from a focus on shame to fostering success. Students in sustained recovery are often more persistent, more willing to take risks, and more likely to think outside the box than their peers. Creativity, ingenuity, and leadership are assets students in recovery bring to both the campus and community. It’s important to recognize that sober privilege leads to a loss of intellectual capital that campuses and society can ill afford.

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