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Alternative peer groups help provide a social network and support system for students in recovery from substance use.

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A new grant from New Hampshire’s Division of Behavioral Health at the Department of Health and Human Services awarded the University of New Hampshire $400,000 to create alternative peer groups for students in recovery from substance abuse.

Through the program, UNH staff will provide psychosocial education, sober social functions, community recovery support, counseling services and family support to students in recovery and their families.

What’s the need: A 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found 49 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and 27 percent of them participated in binge drinking during the same period. Among full-time college students, 13 percent have had alcohol use disorder, as well.

Nationally, around 38 percent of younger adults (aged 18 to 34) are regular drinkers, and 13 percent overdrink, a decline over the past two decades, according to 2023 Gallup survey data.

“Whether you acknowledge the problem or not, it exists,” says Heidi Cloutier, project director at the Institute for Disability at UNH.

Students in recovery can often feel isolated because they no longer associate with peers they used substances with.

“We know that adolescence and young adulthood is the only time where your peer group becomes more influential than your family of origin, so if you’re using with your peers, the prospect of losing all of those peers is really frightening,” Cloutier says.

Alternative peer groups provide a new support network for students and create positive role models for them. Peer support is considered one of the nine best practices of a collegiate recovery program, according to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education.

The background: The alternative peer group program is based in the Institute for Disability at UNH, which focuses on social science research and promoting best practices to benefit youth and families. The Institute for Disability is supported by 12 other campus departments, which make up the Supportive Recovery Campus Community (SRCC), including the residence life, student life and health and wellness offices.

SRCC has three goals: providing health and wellness information to all campus stakeholders, ensuring equitable access to low-cost and free resources, and combating stigma around accessing supports.

The Institute for Disability has assisted with the creation of alternative peer groups for youth organizations around the state for eight years, but this fall marked the start of UNH’s group, Cloutier says.

How it works: Alternative peer groups first started in Texas and are very common in the South, but less so in the Northeast U.S.

UNH staff adapted the model to fit the cultural context, because “the model that’s used in the South wouldn’t fly here in New Hampshire, the Live Free or Die state,” Cloutier explains.

Participation is voluntary to ensure participants are committed to wellness and investing in healthy peer relationships, and participants select activities.

The groups are also facilitated by a trained peer mentor who has lived experience recovering from a substance abuse disorder, and they are supervised by a licensed drug and alcohol professional for safety. At present, peer mentors are not paid, but with the additional grant funding, that will change, Cloutier says.

Groups meet at least once per week for substance-free and recovery-focused activities based on student interests. The group will create programming specific to families and caregivers for additional support.

Wraparound support: Being a recovery-friendly campus requires more than just a peer support group, Cloutier says. Having a physical space for students that is safe and not stigmatized is crucial for community education and servicing those in need. UNH has a designated space on campus for students to meet with peer mentors or with an alcohol and drug counselor.

A substance-free residence hall can also benefit students in recovery by removing temptations and surrounding them with like-minded individuals.

Education is a vital piece in changing campus culture. UNH collaborates with Recovery Friendly Workplaces and the National Alliance for Mental Illness student group to service the larger campus population.

“We’re really focusing on providing education supports to students and their families to make sure that they understand how to access resources, where to get those supports, and the policies surrounding that,” Cloutier says.

What’s next: During the first year, UNH hopes to serve around 100 students with the alternative peer group, which launched in August. The newly awarded funding will benefit program offerings and staff compensation.

“We plan on providing some psychosocial support, some substance-free alternatives for homecoming and [other] opportunities that are common where students might be accessing substances,” Cloutier says.

Staff also hope to collaborate with UNH parents’ group and those on social media to understand their needs.

UNH staff evaluate the effectiveness of the groups through self-assessments, interviews and observation, according to internal documents. The 22 critical components of groups practices that will be tracked cover, among other areas, group activities, facilitation, inclusiveness and safety, privacy, skill-building, and parent involvement.

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