Recent Canadian Campus Wellbeing data shows that 11 per cent of UCalgary students identify as being in recovery from substance use. In response, the University of Calgary Recovery Community (UCRC), in partnership with Student Residence Services, is piloting substance-free housing during the 2023-2024 academic year.
“These students are up against significant pressure,” as post-secondary campuses are known to be recovery-threatening environments, says Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work. Burns describes these as environments where excessive drug and alcohol use is normalized, often even encouraged. “This can create barriers to maintaining recovery … especially difficult for new students living on campus and away from home for the first time.”
The pilot houses four students in Cascade Hall and is part of the UCalgary Campus Mental Health Strategy’s guiding framework to reduce harms associated with substance use. The pilot also aligns with the university’s equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility strategies.
Burns also founded and currently directs both the UCRC and Recovery on Campus Alberta (ROC). Both initiatives are aimed at supporting all pathways to recovery, building community and reducing addiction stigma on campus. UCRC is an initiative run at UCalgary; ROC, considered the umbrella organization, supports post-secondaries across Alberta.
Self-described as a person in long-term recovery, Burns wants to make campus life more inclusive. “The housing is open to students in recovery, and those who live a substance-free lifestyle for various reasons, such as health or religion,” Burns says.
Inspired by initiatives in the U.S., substance-free housing is a main tenet of post-secondary recovery programming. Burns points to a state-of-the-art residence at Stanford University where Well House currently provides spaces for 51 students.
“We are thrilled about the substance-free housing initiative. There are 3,000 students residing in residence, having a safe place to live is key to success and wellness,” says Brittanie Walker-Reid, director of Residence Services.
Substance-free housing supports academic success and well-being
Substance-free housing provides a supportive and safe space where students can focus on their studies and campus experience without being exposed to triggers and/or temptation. It also fosters a sense of community among students who share the similar goals and values.
The students residing in substance-free units have the opportunity to engage with the UCRC during their stay. They can volunteer as part of the Recovery Navigator Program or attend one of the recovery-oriented events across campus, such as the Halloween Party in residence.
Residence community advisors, who serve on-campus housed students, also receive specialized training to better support this population.
“Anything that makes the students feel more inclusive, is great and has value,” says community advisor (CA) Meera Sylvain. “I’m already seeing the value of this program, as the students living in the substance-free unit are already feeling more comfortable.”
Ollie Barnett, an international student selected for substance-free housing this year, agrees: “Substance-free housing encourages a healthier relationship to substances, provides a support system and overall promotes a healthier mind and body for all residents.”
More support is still needed
Burns is hopeful about the progression of support and awareness around substance use and substance-use disorder support — it’s estimated more than 20 per cent of adults aged 18-24 experience substance-use disorder, two to three times higher than any other age group (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2021).
“We know heavy alcohol and other drug use can significantly affect our general well-being,” says Burns. “By offering our campus community better ways to live and thrive, we are better positioned to support successful recovery.
“The high demand for housing for students and the local Calgary community underlines the importance of housing for those in substance-use recovery.”
The UCRC hopes to increase available substance-free units for the 2024-2025 academic year as interest across campus has already grown exponentially, beyond the allotted substance-free units currently available.