By Kelly Rae Chi

Of all the freshman arriving at Duke next week — coming from far and wide to take challenging courses, navigate new living arrangements, make and break friendships  — who will thrive?

What is it about a person that gives him or her the ability to cope with the stress of college better than somebody else?


Duke researchers are examining the student experience to better understand how and when to prevent substance abuse problems.

That’s what a small crowd of basic researchers and clinicians wondered aloud this week during a Grand Rounds mini-retreat introducing Duke’s new Center On Addiction and Behavior Change (CABC).

In particular, the CABC and affiliates are interested in the mental health issues students bring to campus, what happens when they get here, and what can be done at the institutional level to steer them toward healthful choices.

Last year, trustees of The Duke Endowment approved a $3.4 million, four-year grant to help Duke and three other schools toward this goal.  The CABC’s charge is to study prevention, early intervention and treatment of addiction with an eye toward public policy development and community outreach at Duke.

The center’s co-director Timothy Strauman, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, said 30-40% of students enter college having been diagnosed with a mental health issue. Many attack life on campus with a “work hard, play hard” attitude, to their possible detriment, he added.

The question is whether the university can change the student experience to prevent maladaptive behaviors, like binge drinking, that have become all too common on college campuses.  Researchers attending the mini-retreat offered a range of suggestions for helping students thrive, from changing or eliminating fraternities, to incorporating resilience themes into student orientation activities, to pairing students with mentors.

“The goals of CABC are not just about research and patient care, it’s also about re-engineering how the university works,” Strauman said. “If we can do that, we will have been a success.”

More broadly, the CABC, administered by the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, aims to better understand addiction and behavior disorders through basic and translational research and to convert that knowledge into prevention, early intervention and treatment. With CABC, Duke is poised to improve the health of the community, said the center’s co-director Edward Levin, a Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

The student resiliency project is just one way forward: The center also hopes to integrate services with employee health, and participate in other forms of local outreach.

To accomplish these goals, researchers from a range of research areas in addiction and behavior are now meeting to brainstorm and share resources. At the mini-retreat, for example, John Looney, M.D., a physician in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, shared his expertise as director of Duke’s Consortium for the Study of the American College Student. He also invited the CABC and other researchers to access the program’s survey database about college students (largest of its kind in the world), which includes data on substance abuse.