5 Ways to encourage students to talk about their addictions

During our Addiction and Substance Use webinar, former Blue Peter and Sky Sports Presenter Simon Thomas, along with Neurodivergent Mental Health Advocate Paul Chambers, draw from their personal experiences to explore effective strategies for universities to connect with young individuals and foster an environment where they feel comfortable opening up.

One in five young adults has used an illicit drug within the last 12 months, according to data published by the Office of National Statistics. While the drinking habits of many UK students are potentially harmful, according to research published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The prevalence of drug and alcohol use among students can lead to increased risk of addiction and long-term damage to mental and physical health, as well as future job prospects, so early intervention is vital.

How do we engage those most at risk? In our Addiction and Substance Use webinar, former Blue Peter and Sky Sports Presenter Simon Thomas and Neurodivergent Mental Health Advocate Paul Chambers use their own experiences to discuss the best ways for universities to reach young people and encourage them to open up.

The following contains excerpts from the webinar, watch on demand on our YouTube channel.

We’ll cover:

Closed forums: Creating safe spaces online

Zero-tolerance policies and students’ fear of judgment and repercussions may be preventing many young people from seeking help and support for their addictions. According to a recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), just three in ten students would disclose their drug use due to fear of punishment. So, how can we reach and engage those students who are suffering in silence?

“It is paramount to be able to create a safe space where [young people] can speak without judgment,” says Paul.

He recommends offering closed online forums to provide a space for those who are uncomfortable speaking in front of others, as well as anonymous channels where students can speak openly and candidly about their addiction.

Why is it so important? “It’s one of those things that once you start talking about [addiction] and you push through that perceived membrane of judgment and come out the other side…it sounds heavy, but it’s almost like being reborn as a different person,” he says. “The honesty that is attached to it and speaking openly is cathartic; it’s therapeutic; it’s everything. To have that in a place where there is no judgment is absolutely key.”

So, what might that space look like? Simon describes a closed forum he is a member of: “I’m part of an online Facebook group that’s run by the guy who’s been my mentor on the alcohol and sobriety journey. You have to answer some questions before you are considered to be a member of the group, so it’s a safe space. Everybody in the group is on different journeys. Some are still drinking, but they are thinking about maybe giving it up – ‘sober curious’ I think we call them. Some have been sober for 20 or 30 years, and others have just begun their journey. It’s a wonderful group in that there is none of the judgment. You can ask anything, and you can say anything.”

Consider creating your own closed forums and groups where students can share their own lived experiences, ask questions, and connect with others in similar situations.

These can be created on LinkedIn and Facebook, whichever might be best for your students. As the forum administrator, it will be your responsibility to monitor the forum and ensure that all participants are following the rules and guidelines. You may need to moderate discussions, remove inappropriate content, and address any issues that arise among participants.

The power of lived experiences for recovery

Learning about other people’s lived experiences—those who have battled with addictions and emerged on the other side—can be both reassuring and encouraging. It can cut through some of the noise young people are exposed to online and show them both how to manage their addiction and that there is hope and a community out there that wants to support them.

These lived experiences can be found in the online forums mentioned above, through books such as Simon’s “Love, Interrupted,” through a “buddy” service like those run by PoetsIN, and even on social media.

TriggerHub offers an extensive range of products powered by lived experience. From pocket-sized books and memoirs to strategically planned speaker events, training, and workshops.

TriggerHub is proud to champion and be the voice of mental health advocates worldwide. They are also proud to be the champion and voice of those who have survived, shown the ultimate in resilience, and recovered.

To find out more information about how you can incorporate the power of lived experience into your campus initiatives, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Sobriety and social media

While the risks of social media are well known, a carefully curated feed can provide support and encouragement, reaching young people who are not yet ready to open up or admit they may have a problem.

“There is such a growing community online,” says Simon. “I follow loads of different accounts on Instagram that are talking about sobriety, and I find them so, so encouraging. There are far more people out there than I ever knew about, never dared to imagine, who are doing exactly the same thing. So, fill your mind and your heart with encouragement. If you want to go about this quietly and think it through quietly, start following some of these accounts. They are non-judgmental; it’s not all corny quotes every day; some of them are just funny. I follow one account called Sober Humor; you know, it is funny stuff but hard-hitting stuff. There’s a lot of stuff out there that will really encourage you.”

Accountability group

While established 12-step programs can provide a lifeline for some, others may benefit from a smaller, more informal support group made up of friends and peers. Simon describes how he created an accountability group with friends:

“I think Alcoholics Anonymous is brilliant but, like anything, they don’t work for everybody,” he says. “It’s not everybody’s forum. In the same way that counseling isn’t for everybody and medication isn’t for everybody. We all have different ways of finding our way through stuff.”

“I gave two friends permission to ask the questions about how the drinking was going. It was like this little accountability group…You say to friends, ‘I want to be accountable. I’m struggling with this so I’m giving you permission to ask me the tough questions. I won’t always appreciate being asked tough questions but I’m giving you permission’.”

Getting that accountability group right, however, and choosing the right people is vital in order to encourage the necessary honesty. Simon explains why this particular group didn’t work for him in the end.

“I had one friend who just had it down to a T in terms of how you go about it because…he would ask the question in a spirit of love and encouragement and support. So his tone was always, when we were chatting, ‘how’s the drinking going?’ It’s disarming. It doesn’t put you on the back foot. You know, you’re straight away going ‘Yeah, this week it’s not been good. However, the other friend I was accountable to was very much ‘What’s going on with the drinking?!’ There was aggression in his voice and his texts and my response every time was just to get on the front foot…I hated the idea that I was being judged.”

You could work with your own Student Union to create peer-to-peer support groups. These could be hosted virtually on Zoom, in person, or via WhatsApp. Whether they’re book clubs or accountability groups for promoting healthier habits, connecting with others and engaging in healthy competition can encourage students to adopt healthier coping strategies for the long term while also feeling a sense of connection and collaboration.

Judgment is the worst cocktail

A recent HEPI report suggested that universities need to move away from zero-tolerance policies and towards the provision of judgment-free help and support, which recognizes drug and alcohol use as a health problem.

“Judgment, when it comes to dealing with something you are struggling with, is the worst cocktail,” says Simon, who describes how his fear of judgment led him to hide his addiction. “I really struggled with it… I knew I had a problem deep down, I really did, but I hated being judged.

“We have to create forums, we have to create safe spaces where people can open up because we cannot live in a situation, a society where someone is struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism at university and is worrying that by opening up, which will ultimately help them on a path to recovery, it is going to be damaging going forward in life. We’ve got to take that away.”

Communicating the need for a judgment-free approach on campus can be challenging, especially when students are bombarded with multiple messages a day across various channels external to the campus walls.

However, encouraging conversations around this topic has great relevance on campus. Whether you communicate these messages on social media, via email, or share resources with students to combat judgment, there’s a lot that you can do.

Instagram frames are a great way of encouraging some traction on social media, enhancing student engagement, and creating Instagram-worthy hot spots for students on campus while communicating the importance of a judgment-free tolerance.

Printable Instagram frames are great fun, and they create shareable photos that many people are inclined to upload to their personal Facebook and Instagram accounts. You can customize these to have your university name featured and a message of your choice: “You are not alone,” “we understand, you are not alone,” “you are not alone, [insert university name] is a judgment-free campus,” and “Everyone is welcome here. You are not alone.”

Unlock insights: Tune in to the webinar and arrange speaking engagements with Simon and Paul

For deeper insights and advice, you can catch the full webinar on demand on our YouTube channel. Simon and Paul are also open for bookings for individual guest speaker events.

Discover more about Simon’s journey in his book “Love, Interrupted,” which candidly narrates the grief and loss he experienced following the passing of his wife Gemma, along with his struggles with alcohol. Bulk purchase options are available.

Explore Paul’s innovative mental health charity website at PoetsIN.com, offering a plethora of information, guidance, and downloadable resources.

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