Two million teenagers across the U.S. between the ages 12-17 struggle with addictions each year.
For Amelia DeCoster, a recovered alcoholic since the age of 19, being an active addict was difficult and exhausting. “I was able to hold some things together during high school, but these things would slip away year by year,” she said. “Sooner rather than later, I did not have the luxury of being a functioning alcoholic, so my academic career suffered greatly.”
In surveys by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, 60 percent of youth attend a high school where drugs are used, kept and sold, while 75 percent of high schoolers have used addictive substances at least once.
The cost of illicit drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse adds up to over $600 billion nationwide through crime, lost work productivity and healthcare, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Recovery schools are a place where students with addictions can receive their education in a community of other students with the same struggles, while working with staff and faculty who help to keep them sober.
Last year, there were at least 35 recovery schools in the United States, according to NBC News. Minnesota has established recovery schools for over 20 years. If many teens’ addictions begin at their regular high school, these recovery schools try to end them.
But three of Minnesota’s sober high schools are preparing to close. Sobriety High’s Alliance Academy in Burnsville and Arona Academy in Coon Rapids will be closing this month, with City West Academy in Eden Prairie not far behind.
“It’s a shock to see them close,” said Michael Durchslag, executive director of PEASE Academy in Minneapolis, founded in 1989 along with Sobriety High. “It’s devastating.”
Students are now left to find an alternate means of education and recovery. So far, Durchslag has been in touch with about 13 families from Sobriety High for potential enrollment next year.
“We did our best to provide a path towards [other] sober schools,” said Paul McGlynn, Sobriety High executive director, “but there aren’t that many out there.”
Typically, recovery schools don’t receive the funding needed to stay afloat, and enrollment fluctuation makes receiving state and federal dollars difficult enough as is. But when closure happens, students may end up returning to their home districts, where their problems began. This is one of the most likely causes of relapse, and it essentially keeps the flame of teen addiction lit.
Are sober schools necessary?
DeCoster attended Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Plymouth, Minn., in 2007 and is now a chemical dependency technician there. Although she recovered after high school, she said, “I do believe that this kind of schooling is necessary for youth, if and only if they are thoroughly prepared and staffed in order to accommodate those youth with co-occurring disorders.“
“If you ask certain parents, they’ll tell you it’s absolutely necessary,” said McGlynn. “It saved their kid’s life.”
However, some people view recovery schools as a gathering place for addicts to share drugs. Some pose the question that if a student is successful at recovery, is it truly because of the sober school? Or was it commitment from the individual that could have made them successful even at their regular high school?
DeCoster believes recovery isn’t strictly about going to the “right” place, but more about getting the necessary help at the right time.
Sobriety High and City West “were bound to have been safe havens for those needing it at the right and best time in their lives,” she said. “It is sad to see them go.”
According to Jim Steinhagen, executive director of Youth Continuum at Hazelden, young people are most vulnerable to relapse after completing their treatment program and returning to their “home” environment. This is where they face the same environmental challenges as before, such as friends who also used or enabled the progression of their addiction.
Durchslag compares it to an adult leaving treatment for alcohol and then going back to their usual bar. Although they’re not intending to drink, it’s a setup for temptation.
“Many kids go to treatment for addiction come out, return to their home schools and immediately hook up with the people that they were doing the drugs and alcohol with,” he said.
According to Caron, a nonprofit treatment center in Wernersville, Pa., relapses occur in 50-90 percent of people, depending on the type and length of treatment. Students commonly relapse and re-enroll more than once in recovery schools.
The cost of consequences
These relapses can make funding a challenge. Sober charter schools such as Sobriety High and Peers Enjoying A Sober Education, or PEASE, are federally funded and paid per student enrolled. But due to the nature of the sober schools, enrollment is inconsistent. Many students leave the year uncompleted, making it difficult for recovery schools to receive increased funding from the state.
About 140 students in all enrolled at Alliance and Arona campuses this year, but with relapses and drop-outs, only about 57 students are counted and funded. Even though a large portion of students didn’t make it through the whole year, “the intensity of services has to be there the moment they walk through the door,” said McGlynn.
But the cost of those services outpaced the school’s income. This month’s closure is a result of several years of already attempting to save costs. When school officials added the recent loss of a private donor, they decided it was time.
“The bottom line is,” said Durchslag, “they didn’t have the numbers, and because of that, the funding to keep going any longer.”
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “federal and state governments spend 50 times as much on the consequences of substance use and addiction as they do on prevention and treatment.” A bill was proposed in the Minnesota Legislature this year to increase the funding for sober schools, but it never made it out of committee.
In other states, such as Massachusetts, recovery schools not only receive educational funding but also Department of Health funding to help pay for costs, said Durchslag.
McGlynn said the state has to look at a different financing model, while Steinhagen says that developing and implementing a sustainable business model is core to the success of any recovery school.
“Recovery schools are a vital resource for young people in recovery,” said Steinhagen. “Assuming a school has implemented an appropriate business model, the benefits to the community will far outweigh the costs and we’ll all benefit in the long run.”
Addiction as a disease
“Since I’ve been here I’ve seen every type of addiction come through the door,” said McGlynn.
The most common drugs used by teens are alcohol, marijuana and tobacco, which often act as gateways to harder drugs, such as cocaine, meth and heroin.
Students usually suffer from more than one type of addiction at a time. The overlap of drug use is strongly related to mental health and develops through self-medication. While trying to help addicts overcome drug and alcohol abuse, recovery schools are also trying to help students battle any mental health issues while keeping them involved in their classes and education.
Steinhagen said that some individuals abuse the medicine they’ve been prescribed to treat their mental health disorder, such as Adderall for ADHD, which becomes part of a larger problem.
“I don’t know if the public fully understands or is aware what the disease of alcoholism, drug addiction or chemical dependency really is,” said Durchslag. “It’s more than a moral choice and it’s not as easy than just expecting kids to simply say no.”
What recovery schools specifically offer are trained and licensed counselors, staff who are aware of students’ struggles and addictions, a structured but also compassionate recovery process, peer support and the involvement of an overall community that is “centered on the idea kids can leave drugs and alcohol behind and have happy lives and successful lives,” McGlynn said.
People who have struggled with addiction may be stereotyped and dismissed in society, but there is a need for understanding.
DeCoster had her first drink at the age of 10 and has six uncles who are recovering alcoholics. It took the loss of friends, family, college and sanity to bring her to the center.
“I was inexplicably confused and emotional while at Hazelden,” she said. “I was defeated and depleted by my addiction and I knew it. I felt as if I had no energy, no life, and especially no fight left in me.”
After times of lacking in motivation and wherewithal, the other female staff and peers helped her to open up. They “got me to cry with some passion behind it, and they never stopped holding my feet to the fire.”
If treatment centers are able to help youth become sober, recovery schools want to help youth continue that sobriety and be successful.
According to McGlynn, students at Sobriety High could “develop a culture of recovery in their life rather than just go back to their old ways.”
But until a closer look is taken at addiction in the nation and sustainable funding can be administered, the recovery schools that remain will try to serve their purpose for addicted youth.
“These aren’t bad kids,” Steinhagen said. “They are sick, and need help and support to become who they’re capable of becoming.”
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