Jan. 29, 2019

Breaking the silence about faculty addictions on campus

Personal experience inspires UCalgary prof to step up against addiction stigma
Victoria Burns channels energy into combating faculty addiction stigma through the Campus Mental Health Strategy grant project. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Victoria Burns channels energy into combating faculty addiction stigma through the Campus Mental Hea

“The smarter the harder” is a common expression in the recovery community. Plainly put, it means addictions don’t discriminate, and when individuals are high-functioning people like university professors, seeking help means admitting vulnerability.

“We’ve come a long way towards breaking down the silence around mental health issues through campaigns such as Bell Let’s Talk, but when it comes to substance-related addictions, there’s another layer of stigma that keeps people from reaching out,” says Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work

According to Burns, this extra stigma stems from age-old stereotypes about what addiction looks like — the homeless person under the bridge with the brown paper bag, not the person with a PhD.

“There’s still an assumption that addiction is a choice. If you’re a person experiencing addiction you must lack some kind of willpower, or if you tried harder, you could just stop, which simply isn’t the case,” Burns explains.

“These assumptions lead people to resist seeking help because of their own pride, or if they do, they are shamed and blamed, even by medical professionals, because ‘they should know better’.”

In long-term recovery from addiction, Burns draws upon her own lived experience and her research dedicated to addiction stigma to highlight the problematic culture of silence surrounding addictions, especially among faculty members.

“We know from national statistics that one in 10 people suffer from some sort of substance addiction. With the stressful and often competitive nature of academia, it’s likely that a significant portion of our faculty members are struggling but fear showing any vulnerability, especially if they’re pre-tenure,” says Burns.

“If people in positions of power and privilege like faculty members aren’t seeking help and are creating a culture of silence, how are we supposed to make students feel safe to disclose when they need help?”

Moving Towards Wellness combats silence 

Funded by the Campus Mental Health Strategy Grants program, Moving Towards Wellness aims to combat substance-related addiction stigma among faculty members. Alongside her team members, Dr. Christine Walsh, PhD, and Dr. Jacqueline Smith, PhD, Burns is taking steps to understand the prevalence of addictions and the gaps in services at UCalgary.

Part of this process includes conducting interviews with people across the institution, drawing attention to addictions issues and establishing stronger connections with community services that can support faculty in need.

“Even through the interview process, we’re already seeing conversations start,” Burns says. “People who maybe never thought about faculty members struggling with addiction are starting to talk about it and recognize the need to develop new resources.”

By the end of the project, Burns hopes to host a wellness fair connecting faculty members to supports on campus and in the community as well as sharing information about the different recovery approaches available.

“It takes strength and courage to admit you need help, and although it juxtaposes the highly competitive nature of academia, that very vulnerability can allow a person to heal,” says Burns. “When you’re suffering, the idea of being sober even for a day is daunting. Seeing other people who are working and doing fantastic things gives you hope.”

“I wouldn’t be here today without the brave people who came before me and shared their experiences, strength and vulnerability, so hopefully I can help someone through by leading this project and sharing my story.”

UCalgary supports a harm reduction approach to substance use within our university community and offers a spectrum of strategies ranging from safer use to abstinence. If you are living with an addiction, you are not alone — students, faculty and staff can access support on campus and off.

Moving Towards Wellness is a 2018 Campus Mental Health Strategy (CMHS) grant project. The Campus Mental Health Strategy Grants were created to get our community thinking about how they can foster positive mental health and wellness, and help build a supportive environment, through their own big ideas. Visit the CMHS website for more information on grants.