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Student Substance Use: Keele University’s Journey from Zero Tolerance to Harm Reduction

  • 25 April 2023
  • By Kara McEnaney
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Kara McEnaney, Chair of Keele University’s Drug & Alcohol Steering Group. This is the second of a two-blog series on a drug harm reduction pilot organised by Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK). You can read the first blog, an overview of the pilot, here.

Keele University and Keele Students’ Union has been working with Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) since 2015, when we first started to look at alcohol use on campus, and how we could promote a productive, healthy, and inclusive student culture surrounding drinking. Since then, we recognised the need to expand this to include a holistic approach to creating healthy, inclusive cultures around drugs.

Traditionally, the university took a zero-tolerance approach to drug use, which typically focussed on punitive/disciplinary measures for students using substances. Since embarking on the SOS-UK Drug and Alcohol Impact programme, we now have a more educational and supportive approach towards student substance misuse.

Our key milestones in our journey to harm reduction.

One key outcome has been the development of a strong and effective partnership between the university and students’ union. A significant achievement of this partnership was the development of the ‘Joint Approach to Student Substance Use’; the policy between the university and KeeleSU that outlines our harm reduction approach. This policy outlines the educational and supportive approach towards students who are found to be using substances, as well as potential outcomes for students who are responsible for repeated minor, or major, breaches of the discipline regulations. This work is delivered in four main tiers ranging from universal provision aimed at developing an informed and capable student community, through to in-patient provision aimed at our most at-risk students who require clinical intervention.

A further achievement linked to our involvement with the Drug and Alcohol Impact scheme includes launching a pilot peer support scheme aimed at offering students signposting advice on substance use on a peer-to-peer level. This was developed after discovering that 50% of Keele students access drug advice and information from peers compared to university services (12%) or local services (6%) (Keele 2022 Drug Impact Survey).

In the 2022/23 academic year, the students’ union also successfully launched a drug testing scheme, whereby students could anonymously collect testing kits for MDMA, ketamine, cocaine, and LSD from several locations on campus, including the students’ union and Student Services buildings. Inside each test kit is harm reduction information about the specific substance, including the potential risks and harms, and how to dispose of the substance safely if the student no longer wished to use it. To date, over 100 of these tests have been collected by students.

The challenges we have overcome

Whilst Keele University and KeeleSU are now one of three partnerships to have been accredited with Drug and Alcohol Impact, it has not been an easy journey to get to this point, and significant barriers have been faced.

One considerable challenge has been the balance between offering harm reduction information and advice to students, whilst making it clear that we do not condone drug use. Our student communications and policies clearly state that drug use is not condoned at Keele, and it is written into the relevant discipline regulations. However, we recognise that despite this, students are still using substances, and if substances are going to be used, we want our student community to be educated and informed. Keele University and students’ union do not directly share information about how substances can be used in the ‘safest’ way but instead actively signpost to external sources where honest and accurate information is provided, such as the Drugs and Me website. During Uni Mental Health Week, we also developed key messages about substance use and mental health on social media. Prior to participating in the Drug and Alcohol Impact programme no such proactive communications had been shared.

We were lucky to have the support of senior staff at the university, including our Director of Student Services, Pro-Vice Chancellors, and Vice Chancellor. Through thorough consultation with Keele’s Strategic Communications and Brand team, Healthy University Group and students’ union Senior Management Team, the partnership was able to find a way to deliver a harm reduction approach to students that everyone was comfortable with.

Despite this, it still felt ‘scary’ at times to put ourselves out there and be one of the few institutions developing such a change in focus. However, we had a clear vision, and over several years took small steps towards achieving our larger goals.

The positive impact on our students in adopting a harm reduction approach

We are now seeing the positive impact that this transition has had on our student population. In the 2023 Keele Student Drug Survey data, we noticed a significant decrease in the number of students who feared punishment (18% in 2022 to 4% in 2023) or judgement (18% in 2022 to 5% in 2023) from university services. There was also a 22% decrease between 2022 and 2023 in the number of students who were not aware of the support available. In the 2017 Taking the Hit survey, 35% of students nationally knew about their institute’s drug policy; at Keele in 2023, 71% of students reported knowing about our drug policy.

Below are two student auditor quotes from the latest Drug and Alcohol Impact audit:

‘The vision that the Partnership has and the harm reduction approach is excellent. The push to educate students and the strive to make them aware of the services available to them all in hopes to better their mental health and experience at the university is exemplary. The passion to do so is very clearly seen from staff. While this may be case a lot of work is needed to make this vision a reality.’

‘For only having implemented this scheme two years ago, it is clear that the work Keele is doing is promising and I expect the quality of their work will only increase and that they will persevere with both the accreditation and harm reduction work.’

For any institution thinking about starting a journey from zero tolerance to harm reduction, we recommend working with SOS-UK to support this. They provide clear criteria of manageable steps to work towards and achieve this holistic approach to creating a healthy and inclusive culture around drugs on campus.

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