At 23, Richard Paul ’16MNM didn’t expect to see his next birthday. His addiction to alcohol and drugs was killing him and he didn’t see a way out.
“I thought that if I moved to Florida, all my problems would be better,” Paul says. “But I brought my problem with me. I was down here for a year before I was willing to admit that I had a problem.”
Now sober for eight years, Paul has completed a master’s degree at UCF and is working on his second, in social work. His experience with substance abuse and recovery has led him to help others who may be struggling in a university environment where drinking and use of other substances sometimes seems the norm.
College is one of the most common times for people to experiment with alcohol, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which reports that 80 percent of college students drink alcohol and 50 percent of those engage in binge drinking. Based on that use, approximately 15 percent of people 18 to 25 in the United States meet the criteria for substance abuse disorders, compared with 6.6 percent of adults over 26.
UCF has been a national leader in its efforts to help students get and stay sober. The university started holding Narcotics Anonymous meetings on campus in 2011 and then became the first public university in Florida to offer comprehensive recovery support. Across America, universities have followed suit. In 2012, the United States had 29 on-campus collegiate recovery communities. That number has now increased to more than 200.
UCF’s Student Health Services offers counseling and treatment for substance abuse as well as contributing mental-health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
UCF’s Student Health Services offers counseling and treatment for substance abuse as well as contributing mental-health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The Sober Knights student organization offers substance-free social events – including trivia, open mic and craft nights – and weekly meetings that provide fellowship and help direct students to recovery services. UCF holds on-campus Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and has dedicated space for students in recovery to meet, study and find support. The Veterans Academic Resource Center offers support services for students returning from combat, including recovery-centered academic and career advising.
“If people are not sure if they have a problem or are wanting help, they can come over to Student Health Services right on campus across from Ferrell Commons,” Paul says. “There are licensed mental-health counselors and licensed clinical-social workers who are specialized in abuse, so they can come here for resources.”
Alexander Lewis, a junior psychology major, is the president of Sober Knights and he says the group helps students navigate the normalized college culture of partying, drinking and drug use.
“If people feel like they are partying too much just because everyone else is doing it, we’re here to give them an alternative,” Lewis says. “They don’t have to feel like the only way to have a social life is through drinking.”
Lewis’ passion for helping students live a sober life on campus stems from his own struggles with drug addiction. After spending months in a rehabilitation center, he is now five and a half years sober and pursuing a psychology degree at UCF.
“I’m planning on going into industrial organizational psychology – the psychology of how people work,” Lewis says. “The goal is to combine the passion I have for recovery and treatment centers with the degree and hopefully improve how substance-abuse treatment facilities hire people and how they work to help others.”
Lewis urges students not to be afraid to ask for help. “Reach out to who you are comfortable with,” Lewis says. “If not family, then reach out to friends. If your friends aren’t supportive and you’d rather talk to strangers, you can do that too.”
Thomas Hall ’16PhD, led UCF’s substance-disorders prevention efforts at UCF before being recently appointed to direct Orange County’s Drug-Free Coalition. He said the university’s recovery efforts have three goals: provide services for students who recognize they need help, create programs that help those already in recovery be successful at UCF and graduate, and provide a substance-free culture for students seeking a different college environment.
“Many students are looking for alternatives to the worn out, stale, old narratives about excessive college drinking,” says Hall, who emphasized that not everyone in college is partying.
“I have seen the data and despite what people think, today’s 18 to 24-year-old students are drinking less than those before them,” Hall says. “Last year, over 40 percent of UCF first-time-in-college students reported they didn’t drink at all in their senior year of high school.”
Paul and Lewis say those statistics are encouraging, but they know too well the dangers of substance abuse and addiction. They say recovery is a difficult, ongoing journey. They hope that by sharing their stories, they can show others at UCF that with support recovery is possible
As Paul explains, “If you have a problem or you know someone who has a problem, know that there is a way out.”
Along with resources available through Student Health Services, there are several recovery meetings available for UCF community members:
Alcoholics Anonymous: Actions of Recovery
- Tuesdays from 7 to 8 p.m. at thePoint After Dark in the Neptune multipurpose room.
Al-Anon: Serenity Now
- Mondays from 7 to 8 p.m. at thePoint After Dark
- Wednesdays from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Barbara Ying Center
For more information, visit https://studenthealth.ucf.edu/recovery/.
Membership in the Collegiate Recovery Community at UCF is also an option for students who wish to seek assistance while maintaining their recovery during their time at UCF.
- Private study space
- Recovery coaching
- Substance-use counseling
- Fellowship and community recovery resources
- Centered academic and career advising
- Access to local support meetings
For more information, visit studenthealth.ucf.edu/crc.