Column: GW must organize prevention resources to address drug abuse during COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified substance use across the country, especially among incoming college students. Research has found that nearly one in five students in grades eight, 10 and 12 used illicit drugs at least once in 2021, and nearly one in four 18- to 24-year-olds used alcohol or drugs to cope with the pandemic. College students’ drug-related deaths make clear that universities can intervene before it’s too late to support these incoming classes who have grappled with addiction, especially as synthetic opioids like fentanyl make drug use even more dangerous.

But the University has so far failed to rise to the occasion, limiting its alcohol and drug programming to online modules that fail to connect students to a shortage of resources. With a new wave of freshmen arriving on campus this fall while drug abuse and addiction persist in the United States, now is the time for GW to improve its prevention programs and recovery resources to address the challenges incoming students will face.

While GW’s current prevention plan adequately teaches new students about the dangers of drinking and general drug use, the University fails to provide readily available and updated resources that reflect the pandemic’s marked effects on mental health and the country’s struggle to contain fentanyl. After a Stanford student overdosed on fentanyl in January 2020, the university expanded its addiction recovery program and offered greater substance-use education. GW should follow this example and implement an entirely in-person program that centralizes its prevention and recovery resources to address substance abuse and addiction on campus.

GW requires all incoming first- and second-year residential students, including transfer students, to take AlcoholEdu as part of its alcohol and drug substance-use intervention policies, offering situational prevention methods that provide students with social tools to avoid consuming drugs and alcohol. But AlcoholEdu’s asynchronous program designed for mass and annual usage requires little to no focus or attention for most students to complete. Barely a year after its creation, officials cut GW’s Pathways to Recovery program after it failed to gain the interest of even a single student. The program was set to aid students facing high-level sanctions from the Office of Students Rights and Responsibilities with self-designed rehabilitation plans for each participant, matching them with a mentor from a pool of faculty, staff, alumni and community members to guide their progress.

The Collegiate Recovery Community, a recovery-focused student organization that the University rebranded in 2018 with administrative leadership in place of the failed Pathways program, relies on group-based recovery therapy methods like social events and professional development opportunities. While CRC is a step in the right direction, it does not provide the extensively personalized treatment that Pathways to Recovery promised. Its broad events for general audiences fall short of the intensive treatment that Pathways to Recovery would have offered and which could address the pandemic’s impact on students’ mental health.

Resources for students suffering from substance abuse disorders at GW remain scattered, limited and primarily online. Students would benefit from a singular prevention and recovery program on campus that meshes Pathways to Recovery’s intensive treatment for at-risk students with the CRC’s accessibility and detachment from the disciplinary process. Prioritizing community outreach and student engagement would clarify that the newly-proposed program would remain separate from SRR’s disciplinary system. The CRC’s popularity on campus compared to that of Pathways to Recovery demonstrates that students are much more likely to join a group that advertises itself as a greater community than a “get out of jail free card.”

GW can look to Kennesaw State University’s Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery for a program to model its revitalized approach to substance abuse. Kennesaw staff offer all students harm-reduction exercises like tolerance break training, which aims to safely break down a student’s drug dependence, and lessons on the administration of naloxone, which rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. Students can easily access these resources in addition to the university’s own Collegiate Recovery Community on the center’s website. Like Kennesaw, GW should form a robust pool of resources that would reflect the diversity of students’ needs to encourage participation in and reduce stigmas surrounding University-sponsored programs.

GW should invite its CARE Team to partner with the GW Hospital and the Milken Institute School of Public Health to produce meaningful research that will inform prevention and rehabilitation methods on campus. An interprofessional team of researchers from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences announced in November “Project RESULT,” an effort to train clinicians to recognize and treat substance-use disorders. To specifically focus on the needs of its students, GW should go one step further and become involved in recovery science research, a unique field that focuses on how people can recover from substance abuse.

Making naloxone available in every University building and training students and faculty to use it would also mitigate the potential for lethal overdoses on campus. D.C. residents can receive a naloxone kit for free from the Opioid Learning Institute, an educational initiative that aims to share smart opioid prescribing practices with health care professionals in the city. University-sponsored naloxone training would make every member of the University community more capable of saving lives at a very small cost.

GW should recognize the educational limitations of its mostly online modules and focus more on connecting students to its more intensive resources instead of checking off its prevention and recovery resources requirement for students. GW has the resources for such a program to exist and flourish – it just needs to organize them.

Matthew Donnell, a sophomore majoring in political communication and English, is an opinions writer.

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