By Shannon Boklaschuk
University of Saskatchewan (USask) student Mark Hammer is passionate about reducing the stigma associated with substance use disorders as he advocates for wellness on campus.
Hammer, a fourth-year sociology student in USask’s College of Arts and Science, offers support to fellow students as a facilitator with Peer Health. Hammer does this through the Student Recovery Support (SRS) program, which is offered to students who want to reduce their personal substance use harms. SRS is run by Peer Health with support from the Student Wellness Centre and the Department of Sociology.
“I am a person with lived experience, which means that I have a substance use disorder,” Hammer said. “I have been living well with it for over 25 years now, but I wanted to be able to give back.”
Hammer first attended university in the 1980s at a post-secondary institution in British Columbia, but ultimately left university for the workforce before completing a degree. After years of working, Hammer decided it was time to make a change in his life and return to school. He enrolled at USask in his 50s—something he describes as “daunting”—and it turned out to be one of the best decisions he has ever made.
Hammer, now 55, is nearing the end of his Bachelor of Arts (honours) degree in sociology, with a minor in psychology, and has also completed the requirements for the Certificate in Criminology and Addictions. He has excelled in his studies and is planning to pursue a Master of Arts degree in the Department of Sociology upon graduation. He credits his USask education for providing him with the training and tools he needs for the future.
“I’m in awe of the things I’ve learned in the last two and a half years—writing papers and learning about substance use disorders,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about philosophy; I’ve done a lot of different things in the last two and a half years. It’s been an incredible experience learning about all these things, but also working within the substance disorder field and addictions.”
Hammer said student attitudes toward alcohol and substance use have changed, for the better, since he was first a post-secondary student in the 1980s. However, he still sees room for improvement. He wants to continue to support USask students to make healthy choices through his role with Peer Health, and he also wants to find space on campus for students in recovery to meet and support one another in person. He believes that will be possible in Term 2, as USask looks forward to a significant increase in on-campus activities in January.
“When we’re all on site, I’d like to have a place where we can go to as students in recovery and get together and just have a safe place—with information on drinking and cannabis use guidelines and, potentially, areas where we can talk about harm reduction,” he said.
Hammer said the need for supports for post-secondary students in Canada and the U.S. is evident.
“If you look at a lot of the studies that are being done on student use of both alcohol and cannabis, the usage is very, very high,” he said. “One study in Texas has said over 40 per cent of students meet the criteria for a substance use disorder according to the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).”
In addition to in-person connection, Hammer also sees values in online support. As a result, he is involved with an Ottawa-based group called the Community Addictions Peer Support Association (CAPSA), a non-profit organization of people affected by substance use disorders that offers online peer support sessions via Zoom. Hammer facilitates CAPSA’s local All People, All Pathways peer group meetings for individuals questioning their relationship with substances. He is hoping to increase attendance at the meetings, which take place online on Mondays at 4 pm, but he notes that a challenge is overcoming the “absolutely massive” stigma that still surrounds substance use disorders.
“As long as it’s viewed as deviance and a crime, in some instances people are going to try and hide it,” he said.
Hammer said the work done by the Student Wellness Centre and Peer Health on the USask campus is “amazing.” He sees the benefits of people with lived experience connecting with other people who are going through similar experiences.
“I know that when I originally quit drinking 25 years ago if somebody that didn’t have any experience tried to tell me about my experiences, I wouldn’t have listened,” he said. “That’s where we’re at. I’m older than the average student, but I have a real connection with them—I’m writing finals, I’m writing papers.”
During his time at USask, Hammer has been particularly grateful for the opportunities he’s had to work with and learn from outstanding researchers and research teams. He is currently a member of the P5 Project YXE—the Perspectives, Pathways and Priorities of People with Lived and Living Experience (PWLLE) of Substance Use: Informing Policies project. The research study, led by Dr. Barbara Fornssler (PhD), an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health and a sessional lecturer in the Department of Sociology, aims to amplify and mobilize voices of experience to develop and enhance pathways of care for PWLLE of problematic substance use in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan.
Hammer has also worked with the office of Dr. Colleen Dell (PhD), a faculty member in the Department of Sociology and the USask Research Chair in One Health and Wellness, as part of his Certificate in Criminology and Addictions practicum. Dell is a co-founder of the PAWSitive Support Project, which aims to inform Canadian service dog organizations working with veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder about recovery from problematic substance use for inclusion in their training programs. She is also well known for her work with the PAWS Your Stress therapy dog program.
Currently, Hammer is writing about student recovery support models for his sociology undergraduate thesis class, SOC 410.3, taught by Dr. Scott Thompson (PhD). He said the thesis class will be particularly beneficial to him when he pursues his graduate degree.
Hammer’s experiences working with the researchers have been “incredible,” and he marvels at the impacts researchers can have on policy and people’s lives. He, too, wants to help make a difference, and he is pleased he enrolled at USask to continue his education, despite some initial trepidation.
“Pushing through the fear is what allows you to grow further,” he said. “If you’ve got a dream, you can do it.”