Newspapers and magazines are filed with stories of adolescents and young adults struggling with addiction.
Just recently in Texas, a 16-year-old from Cypress landed in the ICU from a form of synthetic marijuana packaged as “potpourri” that she and friends bought at a gas station. A freshman at Heritage High School in Frisco died after taking a synthetic drug that he thought was LSD. And a 17-year-old at Plano Senior High School died of an overdose after he took drugs to celebrate having achieved a 3.9 GPA. He was exploring options for college, with aspirations of becoming an engineer.
The death rates from overdose in Americans aged 15 to 24 more than doubled from 2000 to 2010, and Texas high school students were more likely than their peers nationwide to report lifetime use of alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy and methamphetamines.
Less attention, however, has focused on the dynamic needs and changes in new modes of intervention, providing hope to young people seeking recovery. Parents and policymakers should support these options because they are essential to the move forward.
Presently, federal mandates do not require schools to accommodate the learning needs of children with substance abuse disorders. Some states such as New Jersey are creating legislation to help fund recovery schools.
On the national level, the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act is the most expansive federal, bipartisan legislation to date for addiction support services, designating between $40 million and $80 million toward advancing treatment and recovery support services in communities across the country. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it has a long way to go. We must support this legislation and others like it.
But more importantly, we need to create a community that embraces people in recovery and ends judgment, fear and condemnation.
One emerging alternative is the creation of new institutional structures such as recovery high schools. Growing from the awareness that school campuses may be “sobriety hostile,” recovery high schools are specifically designed for students recovering from substance use disorders.
Young people who attend these schools get a chance to connect with other youths and staffers supportive of recovery, having an environment free of substance use triggers, and also become a part of new peer group settings where they make friends, experience clinical support, recreation and social activities after school and on weekends.
There are presently 35 recovery high schools nationally, five of which are in Texas, including in cities near Dallas, Austin and Houston. This trend needs to continue across Texas.
We must acknowledge that for youths today, experimentation is, for the most part, normative. And there are youths with unique brain chemistry such that once they experiment, they quickly lose the ability to moderate their use and make solid decisions for their well-being. There have to be schools that understand the nature of recovery, not just addiction.
Most people regard “rehab” or “treatment” as the primary or even exclusive option for teens spiraling out of control with drugs and alcohol, but new research reveals increasing options with promise.
Also, treatment settings now aim at community-based exposure to “life in recovery” and longer periods of intervention and support across a continuum of care. This model is replacing the acute care tradition of removing and isolating individuals in 28 days of inpatient care and returning them to their previous worlds, full of relapse risk and triggers.
The depth of the problem and the limited effectiveness of treatment call for imaginative and energetic responses. Not all solutions will work for everyone, but we have to develop more resources and awareness so adolescents and young adults can find their individual paths to recovery with support along the way.
Expanding recovery high schools and legislation that fosters accommodation with substance abuse disorders must be the first steps toward this goal. We must break down the stigma and raise awareness so we can provide an environment conducive to productive and healthy living.
Lori Holleran Steiker is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) April 2, 2015