A top administrator in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lauded UNC Charlotte's recovery program for its longevity during a listening session held in the Popp Martin Student Union on Nov. 13.
Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), commended the history and success of Charlotte Recovery Program (CRP), a campus support initiative for students seeking to engage in a lifestyle of recovery from addiction or substance use.
During the visit, Center for Wellness Promotion staff, CRP alumni co-founders and current student participants shared program information and personal experiences with health officials, state agencies and three members from the North Carolina General Assembly.
The 45-minute listening session and discussion focused on the importance of increasing access, changing the recovery conversation and sustaining support.
‘Birthplace of Collegiate Recovery’
Described as North Carolina’s “birthplace of collegiate recovery” by Secretary Kody Kinsley of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the CRP was formally established in 2012 as the first of its kind in the state and 11th in the nation. SAMHSA Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant funds issued to the DHHS help fund the program.
Kisha Summers, associate director of the CRP, acknowledged the endurance of Charlotte’s program and explained that many programs struggle to survive for various reasons such as funding, staffing, or institutional support, particularly during the pandemic. Summers pointed to the commitment of students, staff, University and engaged alumni as a credit to CRP’s longevity and success.
She also highlighted the CRP’s commitment to outreach and education, citing ways Charlotte’s program reached more than 900 students over the past 14 months through campus partnerships, outreach activities such as tabling and events, and word of mouth.
These efforts help expand and change the conversation about recovery and the CRP’s recent shift to an all-pathways program model to meet students where they are, whether they are choosing abstinence or seeking healthy lifestyle alternatives during any point of their recovery journey.
Student Experiences Shape Futures
The CRP was co-founded by two students, Hilary Belk '12 and Chelsea Schmidt '15 working with the Center for Wellness Promotion.
During the session, each spoke of their personal college experience and the life-changing impact of the collegiate recovery program. Schmidt emphasized how finding a supportive community was transformative in helping her feel more comfortable engaging in campus life, like attending sporting events, “clean” spring break trips and other social activities.
For Belk, her support journey would become one that led to a career of lifelong advocacy and public health work. She discovered firsthand how a grassroots effort could build a campuswide support network from the ground up, and the experience provided her with leadership skills and future career path.
Two current students also spoke about their personal recovery journeys and how important sober opportunities and connecting with others on similar recovery paths is key to getting the most from the college experience. Not only did they find community in the CRP and a safe place for sober activities and social connection, but they eventually found themselves in student employment positions that enabled them to continue to give back to others while developing professional skills.
Kinsley noted that this might be an underrecognized impact of such programs: That they also function as workforce incubators for those who graduate from the program to pursue careers in behavior health and recovery support.
Expanding the Dialogue
State elected officials brought unique perspectives to the conversation at the event.
State Rep. Carla Cunningham BSN, RN raised the importance of the generational impact of collegiate recovery programs and how training programs like QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) for suicide prevention create needed dialogue in college spaces, and that similar dialogue would also be advantageous in the K-12 school system.
CAPS Director Erica Lennon and CWP Director Sophia Marshall outlined additional behavior and mental health initiatives and training at Charlotte for students, faculty and staff. These include Mental Health First Aid, Opioid First Aid as well as others that intentionally structure training from short, entry-level workshops to more in-depth intermediate and advanced courses.
State Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed '08 expressed appreciation for the CRP’s 100% graduation rate and 3.4 average participant GPAs, and supported the notion of starting earlier dialogues in primary schools. Citing his criminal justice background, he pointed out the value of intentional recovery support in the educational system as a pre-emptive means of addressing issues before they appear under different circumstances in the criminal justice system.
State Rep. Mary Belk '06, also mother to Hiliary Belk, agreed that rather than relying on solutions through the judicial system, changing and expanding dialogue around recovery is needed. She has seen the positive and lasting impacts of recovery communities firsthand, which are often tight-knit, supportive and committed to giving back to others, personally and professionally.
Program Sustainability and Growth
The conversation returned to the importance of federal and state funding, and how critical federal block grants and state allocations are to the vitality and sustainability of these types of programs.
Jarmichael R. Harris, director of Scholastic Recovery, Addiction Professionals of North Carolina (APNC), said many university programs are challenged by funding and staff turnover. He credited Charlotte’s relationship with alumni as one of the keys to the program’s strength, ensuring its story never gets lost.
Another critical piece Harris emphasized is the flexibility to use state and federal funding to tailor support to the needs of individual communities, especially with so many moving toward all-pathways models, to maintain the growth of collegiate recovery programs. He noted that expanding pathways is not lowering the bar, it is expanding the net of student support. Harris also observed that potential students increasingly factor in access to recovery programs in their enrollment decisions. Nationally, the 17 programs approximately 10 years ago have grown to upward of 155 across the country.
Kinsley added that North Carolina now has 30 collegiate recovery programs, of which 18 are funded with federal block grants.
Sara Howe, CEO of Addiction Professionals of NC, also reiterated the importance of block grant funding impact, and how critical that flexibility becomes for addressing prevention and recovery, as often an individual needs both, not one or the other. Grant reporting also becomes a data collection mechanism to guide innovation and diffuse best practices across the state.
‘Giving Hope and Giving Back’
Wrapping up, Cunningham extended a special thank you to the CRP students in attendance who shared their personal stories.
Delphin-Rittmon commended the CWP staff, CRP alumni and program participants for using resources to give hope and to give back, while building and evolving what works best at Charlotte. Kinsley saluted Charlotte’s program and the stories it has launched, and how important those stories are to changing the conversation on recovery and increasing awareness of support resources.