Collegiate Recovery Initiative Trains ‘Allies’ on Addiction, Mental Health Issues

/ January 17, 2023

Editor’s Note: Much of the information that this blog focuses on is related to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but the information is often applicable to those with disabilities more generally. One area of disability that is often overlooked, including by me, is mental health and substance use disorders. Yet these disabilities often hamper people from getting and keeping jobs, and the difficulties often become prominent during a person’s college years. So I was delighted to hear about this program and its efforts to reduce stigma and provide young adults with very needed support.

By Nathan Payne

“You’re worth it.”

These three simple words were said to me by a stranger at an undergraduate research symposium held at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, KY. It took no more than a few seconds for a professor, whom I had never met, to significantly influence my decision to go to graduate school to become a mental health counselor. I stood there, after presenting on my research on opioid use disorder and related mental health conditions, and I discussed my concerns about going to graduate school with this person. She listened intently to my excuses and stopped me mid-sentence, when she said those words, “You’re worth it.”

The words actually came in the form of a question, “You know you’re worth it, right?” And as I fought back the tears, I realized what all my fear about grad school was rooted in, it wasn’t really fear. It was my belief that I had had help most of my life, and that I really was not worth much. This is the same belief that led me to start using drugs at the age of 11 and pursue them intensely until I was 20 years old.

I had made it a point since I began my recovery to battle those doubts that circled my head on a daily basis, telling me that I was not, in fact, “worth it.” Yet, those doubts had come back, and unbeknownst to me, were influencing my decision as to whether I should accept an opportunity to attend graduate school. I had started college at just 90 days into my recovery from an opioid use disorder, and I have struggled with imposter syndrome, depression, anxiety and had my fair share of touch-and-go moments in sustaining my recovery. But on Oct. 31, 2022, I celebrated 10 years abstinent from both drugs and alcohol.

The journey of maintaining my recovery, getting a degree in higher education, and building a career has not been an easy one at times, but it has been worth it. The only way, however, that I have made it this far is by the support of a community of individuals who have been where I have been or who are aware and understand the hardships that often accompany recovery from drug or alcohol misuse. That is the goal of the Tennessee Collegiate Recovery Initiative — to cultivate opportunities for students on campuses all across the state to be supported by their peers through open conversations and working to reduce the stigma of substance use disorder.

Substance use disorder and mental illnesses are some of the most difficult aspects of the human experience, and it is for this reason, among others, that these issues are often not discussed in an open fashion. Individuals either do not know how to start these conversations, or they are concerned that they will say the wrong thing. Through the Tennessee Collegiate Recovery Initiative, we train individuals to become both recovery and mental health allies in order to de-mystify these topics so that they may be discussed on college campuses and reduce the stigma associated with them. In addition to training and stigma reduction, the initiative also aims to connect individuals with resources that are already in place to assist individuals seeking treatment. Since the program’s start, we have trained more than 1,000 “recovery allies” on campuses across the state and helped bring about countless conversations with college faculty and administration on how to better support students who may be struggling to start or maintain recovery. All of this is done with the mindset that no student should have to struggle with feelings of whether they are worth it or not. The program also encourages students to feel empowered by the present as well as the potential that the future holds for them. The initiative has 26 campuses that it partners with to better support and connect students to valuable resources, and this number continues to grow.

The Tennessee Collegiate Recovery Initiative aims to:

  • Inform and equip campus leaders to take proactive roles in curbing the addiction epidemic.
  • Encourage campuses and students to use to the best advantage available college and community resources.
  • Help campus leaders in determining whether they have a need for a Collegiate Recovery Community or Collegiate Recovery Program and assisting them in getting their programs off the ground.
  • Reduce the stigma surrounding substance abuse issues through peer sharing and roundtable discussion.
  • Understand the continuum of care and to be able to work with it.

My ultimate goal, through this initiative, is that no student should have to struggle to find support in their recovery, and that we, as a community, no matter our affiliation or past, may recognize that we all play a role in the support of others on their recovery journey.  For more information, check out the program website or contact me at or 615-712-4343.
I very much appreciate Nathan’s willingness to share his personal story, which I think is very powerful, and his work with the Collegiate Recovery Initiative. Obviously, this work is close to Nathan’s heart. So often our personal experience drives us to want to help others, and this program’s use of peers and allies demonstrates that. I hope if you are a college student in need this type of support, you will contact Nathan, or if you are a parent or friend who knows of a college student struggling with drugs or alcohol, you will help guide that student to this program.

Congratulations, Nathan, on your recovery and the work that you do!

As always, if anyone has questions or concerns, please contact me at

Nathan Payne is the director of the Tennessee Collegiate Recovery Initiative, a project funded through the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Nathan is a mental health counseling graduate, and a person in long-term recovery from active substance abuse. Through the initiative, Nathan brings his own experience to the table to discuss practical measures that we can all take to better support students struggling with substance abuse issues as well as reduce the stigma associated with reaching out for help.


Share this Post