Substance Abuse: Managing Education and Career

College students trying to manage substance abuse face a unique set of circumstances, navigating not just their substance issues, but also education, family, career development, and more. How can those specific needs best be met and addressed?

We spoke with The Haven’s Oriana Murphy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor II who is passionate about helping young adults and their families navigate the challenges that arise from co-occurring disorders. She has been actively working with individuals and treatment programs for more than 15 years in a variety of roles and is dedicated professionally and personally to outlets that nurture recovery.

Oriana Murphy on Education, Careers & Substance Abuse

Question: Describe the people who are in your care. How old are they? Where are they in life?

Oriana Murphy: Currently we have students from ages of 18 to 32, so it’s a wide range. And we have students who are just starting college or in college all the way to one who graduated law school.

Question: What are some specific needs of students who are in your care?

Oriana Murphy: Navigating a sober lifestyle while trying to move forward with their lives educationally. As they’re on this journey of, “OK, what are the things that they’re going to make me successful in life? What are the things that I enjoy, while also trying to build and establish a personal recovery program,” which can be complicated in and of itself just to do that. Then on top of it, while trying to move forward and take on challenges like education and then career development. So that’s sort of their special thing: “How do I do both of these at the same time?”

Question: What are some of the approaches or tactics or ideas that you talk through with them? How do you, how do you help them with that navigation?

Oriana Murphy: I think one of those things is really having a clear understanding from the students of what their ultimate goals are. Why are they in their classes? What’s their major – or is something like law school, what’s the goal? Why do you want to become a lawyer? Finding out the specific goals of the client and then figuring out from them why did they feel that there’s this need for a sober lifestyle as well?

Because I think that oftentimes, we work with students whose families have pushed them maybe towards this idea of needing to be sober, and just because they might be younger, and they may not be totally on board with it. So I think the most important tactic is to find out from my students why they think they need to be where they’re at, or what ideas they have around why this would be helpful for them. So that would be the one piece. I think also, I’m very transparent… I’m very upfront, transparent. I’m not trying to sell it back as “goods” to my students.

And so that’s one of my main, I want to say tactic, but my main modality essentially of working with my students is I am who I am. I’m not going to try and pretend I’m a different type of counselor or therapist staff member than who I actually am. I’m going to be upfront with you, you’re going to know what you’re going to get for me. So there’s not going to be any secrets or mixed messages, which I think is so important because a lot of the students that we work with come from families where they get mixed messages all the time. Parents say they’re going to do one thing, they do something different, and the recovery community should really be about reparenting and showing our students that they can trust adults and that adults can say what they mean and mean what they say. And I’m really like their point of contact for doing that. So that would be like my other big piece is transparency, open, honest communication.

Question: Do you interact with the parents at all, or do you interact solely with your clients and interacting with their parents is beyond what would be appropriate?

Oriana Murphy: I have minimal interaction currently. My history, I’m used to working with families. A lot of my training and history is with working with families, but I actually don’t work with them as that often right now.

Question: So if you could give general guidance to parents of these kids at this stage in their life as opposed to people that you might deal with it, different stages of their life, what guidance would you give parents?

Oriana Murphy: The first thing would be clarity. Providing their kids with some clarity and transparency, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to tell them what they’re thinking all the time. But I think that, like I said, the missing piece, oftentimes, families will give mixed messages. They’ll say one thing, they’ll do something different, and it’s really confusing. And I think for parents, they may not know the answer right now. That’s OK. Say you don’t know the answer right now. Don’t say, “No, we’re not going to do that,” when you know that you’re not going to not do that. Just being sort of more out front and more clear in your communication with your children can be very helpful.

Question: What do the students feel is unique or what do you feel is unique about dealing with addiction issues at this stage in life? How do you help them if they might be worrying, I’m not being successful at this stage in my life, how am I going to get it together for later in my life?

Oriana Murphy: Each stage has its own challenges, but for an 18-24 year old to get sober is probably one of the most challenging times because the rest of their friends from back home are not sober. They are at college; they’re having the college experience. The college experience is one that is fueled by drinking and drug use and partying, and the social lubricant of alcohol that is flowing at college campuses is alive and well. And for our students, sobriety – when they’re surrounded by this – is probably the most challenging time that they’ll ever face getting sober, I think. I actually think that it’s, I hear less, the idea of, “Well, if I can’t do it now, how will I ever do it?” I actually hear more, “Why do I have to do it now? Can’t I do it after?”

And I think that’s that sort of that key piece, because when they start to get a little older is when I start to hear a student say, “Oh my God, I got to college. But like now I’m an adult. If I can’t get sober now, how am I ever going to do this as life goes on now? I should be able to wait. I should be able to have fun now. Why do I have to get sober now versus the alternative?”

Question: That makes me wonder as well, do we need better society education, or is this a one-on-one situation that people like you have to try to help individuals deal with?

Oriana Murphy: We definitely need better resources, more resources. I think there’s not a lot of money that’s put into prevention, and I think, unfortunately, the efforts have been, the prevention efforts have been the D.A.R.E. programs. Historically, they are getting a little better. But I think what’s missing is those conversations that educators, adolescents, therapists, family should be having with their students, kids, clients: What do you do when you’re faced in this situation, and what is it about alcohol that makes you want to use it? These students are seeing it at parties everywhere, even in high school, possibly earlier. And I think that people aren’t having the upfront honest conversations with them of like, “OK, I get why you might want to try alcohol. I understand that, but let’s talk about it.”

Because I think that what happens is as they get a little older and they’re entering college, if they’re fortunate enough to get to college, and then it’s sort of this free-for-all, and they don’t know how to really navigate that. And then all of a sudden maybe they have a bad semester, and they’re expected to sort of get sober in the middle of this college experience. And they’re like, “Well, how am I going to get sober now? Everyone else is doing it, why do I have to?”