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Will She Relapse if She Goes Back to College?

college graduate on the road

Allies in Recovery member FaithInRecovery wants to support her daughter's wish to return to college but her daughter's therapist is dead set against it…

"Should my daughter return to college?

My daughter used heroin for two months, in her Freshman Spring semester at college. She then reached out for help, and we put her into a wonderful rehab program in CT. After rehab, she lived in a sober house in New York City, and met a new psychiatrist, and therapy team. Her first psychiatrist wanted her to return to college right away, in the Fall, because her use was related to people and events off-campus. Her college friends are hardworking people that watched her go down the dark path, and helped her to call us, and get treatment.

Anyway, my girl really wants to go back to college. But her NEW psychiatrist is dead against it, and thinks she will relapse…So the conflicting opinion, of two psychiatrists, has her confused and feeling really anxious and scared.

How should we support her? I am tempted to go against what the psychiatrist says, and defend her ambitions. I would put in place drug testing each week, therapy each week, a sponsor, and ask the staff to let us know, through her professors, if she is going downhill academically. This would require legal releases signed by my daughter, so we are part of her treatment, etc. It is so frightening.

What if we support college, then she relapses? And what if she takes a semester off (second one), and loses touch with those friends who were so supportive… and has to start all over again to establish good friends at college. I think my daughter has a Fear of Missing Out feeling about watching her friends return to college…But I also feel like college is familiar. The fall would involve finding an apartment, or living in sober living 'til December. Yes: she would have the continuity of the psychiatrist and the sober living staff, but the sober house is so awful! Anyway, would love some advice."

Attending College: will it help or hinder a relapse?

Thanks for writing in. I am thrilled to hear your daughter is doing so well. She is taking suggestions and is in treatment. It’s time to figure out next steps and you have been given conflicting advice. Should she or shouldn’t she go back to college?

A Pursuit that Competes with Use

What stands out to me is your daughter’s motivation to return to school. The CRAFT framework seeks to encourage pursuits that compete with use. The thrill of learning, the connection with new college friends, and the headiness of exchanging big ideas, combined with the structure and demands of college could certainly fit the definition of a pursuit that competes with use.

Relapse is possible in either scenario. The key is whether your daughter actively works to prevent relapse in her daily life and remains motivated to stay abstinent. Treatment and recovery activities exist both in New York City and at college.

Colleges in general have become much more aware of substance use disorder and have created activities and “sober” spaces, like alcohol- and drug-free dorms, meetings, and gathering spots for their students. Colleges may even have dedicated staff whose responsibility it is to address these students’ needs.

Can you look into what is available at the college? Can you help your daughter identify similar treatments to what she is receiving in New York? If the answer is yes, and your daughter agrees to participate in those treatments and recovery activities, you have what you need to weigh the options with her.

What Can Be Put in Place Once They're in College

We wrote a blog a while back that details what you can do as a parent to put in place a system of checking-in for your college student and get some peace of mind for yourselves. Your ideas are similar to what we suggested….I’d say you’re on the right track.

Here's a link to the blog post, Should I Be Paying for College?

What “on-a-mission” suggests in her response to your comment makes good sense. Leave time in the daily scheduling of classes for recovery activities. In fact, prioritize the schedule so that recovery activities are slotted first. Consider the stress that a full-time schedule creates. Can she go back to college part-time and spend the rest of the time in skill-building and supports for recovery?

The studies show that the longer one stays in treatment, the better the results. Can your daughter shift from New York back to College and maintain her level of treatment? Perhaps you show your daughter this exchange of ideas as a way to also help her arrive at what is best.

One last thing. Can she choose classes that are meaningful to her? This can be hard at the undergraduate level, when so much is scripted for them, but intro to psychology vs. trigonometry might help get things started on a better footing.

Our thoughts are with you. Let us know what you learn. The issue of College is on the minds of others on this site.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Check out, the webpage for the Association for Recovery in Higher Education. As you mentioned in your response, there are sober living enviroments in many colleges and universities that allow one to stay close to recovery and still have the benefits and healthy experiences of the college years.

    1. Thank you Jnana,
      This is so great that this is out there! There is hope!
      Also, thank you Dominique Simon-Levine, it was Allies in Recovery that taught me to focus and build on the positive. That’s why staying supportive when my son wanted to return to school and classes was a way for my husband and I to influence and help guide him to the good he was doing.
      Again, thank you to both!

  2. Hi FaithInRecovery,
    All of this seems so daunting and knowing what is the next step is can be really confusing. We have been faced with similar decisions in our house with our son too. Although none of us can really tell what will work for your daughter, we can share mistakes and successes we have had and maybe it will spark an idea or thought that will move you, your family and daughter forward. When my son was in early recovery (by early I mean months), we did support him returning to classes. We did not however support him living in the dorms. If he was serious about school then taking one class at a time to gain mental strength should be enough. If he wanted to go back and live in the dorm, fine, but we were not paying for it. We did not verbalize it to him, but it was important to us that he show us he was focused on learning and not the social aspect of things. We felt it could be a part of his recovery process and may just give him some confidence that he was moving forward. We encouraged him to not move too fast, he still had to focus on recovering from drug use and then work on the mental health part of the disease.
    For us it was also important that he not place himself back into a community where triggers are everywhere, so finding new friends, a new school, etc. was part of the remedy. We had found from previous relapses that early in the recovery process, his returning to an environment where he had friends and had used was not a good environment. (He had tried to return to school in the past only to crash and burn). Even his friends that were not doing the same drug (Heroin), were not good for him to be around because they were still in party mode and the draw was too strong. In previous relapses he thought he was going to be able to withstand the lure but the disease proved to be too strong and he eventually went back to it.
    It was a back and forth learning experience for my husband and I and our son as to what was going to work for him. He is now in recovery for 21 mos. and back in school. He took one class at a time, then two, and in January he starts back full time. It took us a long time to get there with a lot of patience. One thing I learned this last go-round of it, is he has had the most success when he was focused for a long period (at least a year, if not more) on his recovery. Not school, not work, not anything else but recovery (and that includes his mental health). He really needed to learn good strong coping skills, because anytime anything tough or emotional comes up, the craving seems to rear its ugly head. Now he reaches out for help.
    I hope that you are able to find something relevant in my story that will help with your journey with your daughter. I know it is incredibly difficult to know where to turn. I can also tell you that the video modules here helped me so much and I am incredibly thankful that I found Allies in Recovery.