April 19, 2023

UCalgary Recovery Community: Finding addiction-recovery support and community on campus

First collegiate recovery program in Canada aims to raise funds during Giving Day
UCRC team members and volunteers with UCRC’s campus connection cart, handing out coffee and talking about campus recovery initiatives
UCalgary Recovery Community team members and volunteers with the campus connection cart. Victoria Burns

With “recovery is radical self-love” stickers, training, substance-free housing, peer support, mutual-aid meetings and social events, the UCalgary Recovery Community (UCRC) is making waves on campus.

The program — which aims to support all pathways of recovery, to build community and reduce addiction-recovery stigma on campus — was founded by Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, in 2021, following research that highlighted the stigma she experienced first-hand. “The UCRC is the program I needed both as a student in active addiction and as a faculty member silenced by shame about being in recovery.”

Now, for the first time, the UCRC is positioned to raise funds through the University of Calgary’s annual Giving Day.

Burns, who doesn’t want students and staff to abandon education and employment because of addiction or recovery, emphasizes the importance of supporting the UCRC — especially during Giving Day, when donations can have twice the impact. From now until April 27, all eligible gifts will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $2,500 per gift, while matching funds last.

Donations support UCRC stigma-reduction and community-building projects such as lived-experience scholarships and awards, recovery-oriented residence housing, training and workshops, and physical space to host mutual-aid meetings and substance-free social events. Everyone deserves the opportunity to pursue recovery.

“UCRC is such a timely, relevant, and important initiative on our campus,” says Dr. Andrew Szeto, PhD, director of the Campus Mental Health Strategy.

Although campus resources and supports around substance use have grown, the UCRC goes beyond by creating a supportive community for those in recovery through its all-pathways, peer-driven approach.

Students and staff in recovery are a marginalized population on post-secondary campuses. Canadian Campus Wellbeing’s recent data show that 11 per cent of UCalgary students identify as being in recovery, yet there is significant pressure to drink and party, which can create barriers to maintaining recovery.

There are currently more than 150 collegiate recovery programs in the United States, but the movement has been slower to take hold in Canada, despite increasing need. More than 20 per cent of college students experience substance-use disorders (SUD), including the use of alcohol, cannabis, and inhalants.

In the UCalgary context, that means out of a 33,000-student body, approximately 7,500 could meet criteria for an SUD and potentially benefit from the UCRC. Faculty and staff are also being affected, considering 70 per cent of all adults with an SUD are employed, and mental-health-related leaves in post-secondary contexts are on the rise.

The UCRC is the first collegiate recovery program in Canada to take a full-campus community approach and include faculty and staff as well as students. It is the model that UCalgary is using to lead the growth of campus recovery programs province-wide.

In partnership with Recovery on Campus (ROC) Alberta, the UCRC is normalizing and celebrating staff and faculty recovery, which helps reduce stigma. Zoltan Varadi, a UCalgary staff award recipient, says, “I’ve been sober for 20 years. We hear a lot about the negative aspects of addiction, so I was thrilled to see there is recognition that people in recovery are part of the UCalgary community and thriving.”

By leveraging grants from The City of Calgary and the Student Union Quality Money program, the UCRC in 2021 hired a program co-ordinator, Noor Hadad, who co-created a student recovery navigator volunteer program, and several recovery-oriented activities, including monthly coffee carts, where recovery resources are shared.

“Recovery-oriented social events are a pillar of UCRC programming, and the interest is encouraging. We recently organized a St. Patrick’s Day mocktail night in residence that attracted more than 60 students,” says Hadad, adding that a highlight of the program is the lived-experience scholarships. “Because of our Quality Money grant we were able to recognize four students in recovery this year.”

Another student lived-experience award recipient (who did not wish to be named), emphasizes the significance of this recognition of their recovery. “I appreciate that this award sees and celebrates my own courageousness and imagination about championing safe places for all people to carry out their sober curiosity, allyship, and personal approaches to recovery.”   

Most recently, the UCRC partnered with UCalgary Residence Services to implement substance-free housing in Cascade Hall. This is geared to students who choose to lead a substance-free lifestyle for various reasons, including past personal/family problematic use, religion, and/or health.

Substance-free housing encourages a healthier relationship to substances,” says Ollie Barnett, an international student selected for substance-free housing this year, “and it provides a support system and overall promotes a healthier mind and body for all residents.”

UCalgary Giving Day is April 27. Whether you support student awards, critical research or any one of UCalgary’s innovative funds, your gift will help change lives and shape the future. All eligible gifts made from April 1-27 will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $2,500 per gift, while matching funds last. Make your gift today at ucalgary.ca/givingday.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.

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