Holidays Bring College Student Substance Abuse Problems Home

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Passages to Recovery sees a dramatic increase in requests for residential treatment as young adults home for the winter holidays blow off steam by drinking or using drugs

At Passages to Recovery, a wilderness recovery program in southern Utah, the holidays mean an explosion in their population of young adults whose alcohol or drug use problems have reached crisis levels.

Trilby Hoover, Executive Director of Passages, explained the reasons for this increased need for treatment.

“These young adults are in settings where they need to perform. Alcohol or drug abuse shows up in report cards. During the Winter Breaks, families often first become aware that the student has a serious problem.”

During the holidays, issues such as family psychodynamics often exacerbate the use of drugs and alcohol. The intensity of being around family members and people you love after being away from them for a period of time can cause high stress levels. Many young adults escape these feelings by drinking or using drugs.

It is well known that drunk-driving incidents and alcohol-related deaths spike during the holiday season. Family gatherings and other holiday social events often focus on celebratory drinking, increasing the risk that a young adult’s substance abuse problems will escalate this time of year.

The holidays can even become an excuse for some people who normally drink moderately to binge drink. These young adults often believe these isolated incidents do not merit treatment.

“It only takes one vehicular manslaughter incident to ruin someone’s life,” says Trilby Hoover. “It’s not about the frequency of drinking; it’s about what happens when the use of substances is involved.”

In 2003, teens and young adults ages 15-20 accounted for 14% of all traffic fatality deaths. Among those young drivers who died, more than 30% had been drinking according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). According to the NHTSA, these numbers are higher than in previous recent years.

These grim statistics come home to many families when they discover their child gets alcohol poisoning or drives under the influence. Some of these young adults may be arrested for DUIs or be involved in traffic accidents. In the worst cases, the young person is involved in an accident that results in death.

According to Hoover, the biggest obstacle in getting treatment for these young people is family denial.

“Families often delay treatment because they want to spend the holidays together. They convince themselves the problem is not that bad. Often the child will convince their parents that the problem is under control.”

Families and the substance abuser often feel that a treatment center is the last place they want to spend Christmas or New Year’s Day.

“One of the benefits of wilderness treatment is that it inspires a sense of awe in people. This resonates with participants during the Holiday season. I’ve worked in conventional treatment centers during the holidays, and the participants often focus on simply “making it through” and tend to feel sorry for themselves. They are anxious about the holidays; the standard daily routine reinforces this anxiety,” says Ms. Hoover.

Ms. Hoover explains that in the wilderness the students focus on the community of people they are with because they need to cooperate. At dinner time, they do not walk to a cafeteria to fill up a tray. They work as a team, collecting wood to build a fire, preparing sleeping areas for the evening, and making sure their immediate needs are met to survive in the wilderness.

“More important, the wilderness becomes a metaphor for recovery in the outside world. The reality is that in winter in wilderness we all have natural concerns about being comfortable and warm, and there is a benefit of walking through this situation and realizing that you not only survive but actually thrive. Students learn to trust themselves in a deep and meaningful way.”

Many students who have attended wilderness treatment also report that the pristine wilderness helps them recognize their place in the world. Many substance abusers have a distorted view of themselves, and the power of Mother Nature helps them get life in proper perspective.

“Regardless of the traditions of the Holidays, they are really about supportive relationships and communicating love and care for each other, “ says Ms. Hoover. “Being in a supportive community is characteristic of the wilderness experience. Participants are not just “treated,” they are active participants in changing the way they relate to others and the world around them. You can’t just take care of yourself when you feel like it. You have to do it regardless of how you feel, and this carries into the problems of overcoming addiction.”

More information about Passages to Recovery is available by calling 1-866-625-8809 or on the Internet at

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