By Julie McElrath
I have seen this trend from up close, first as the counselor at a drug and alcohol residential treatment center. I worked with adult heroin users with multiple relapses who, on average, had started used opioids at 15 years of age.
Today, in my role as executive director of University High School, Austin’s first sober high school, I again see the human reality behind the statistics. Take Victoria,* for instance. She started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at age 13. When she was 15, she was at a party and a friend offered a prescription pain reliever taken from the home’s medicine cabinet. This young woman, who describes herself as socially awkward, says that after taking the pill she suddenly felt more relaxed and confident. She liked the feeling. As her use of prescription pain relievers increased, they became too expensive and a switch to heroin seemed the best alternative.
Traditionally, Victoria might have been isolated in inpatient care for treatment and then, after four weeks, returned to her previous world – the same school, the same friends, the same parties – to face relapse risks and triggers. Studies indicate, in fact, that 60 to 70 percent of students with addiction problems relapse upon returning to their former high schools after treatment.
Sober or recovery schools like ours offer an alternative to traditional treatment by tapping into the innate human desire for connection and being part of a community. At University High School, Victoria has thrived. She found structure, accountability, and met other students “like her” with whom to practice skills learned in treatment, acquire new skills, and have sober fun. After school hours and on weekends we require participation in alternative peer groups in Austin (Teen & Family Services or Palmer Drug Abuse Program), which keeps our students connected with positive peers and adult mentors. We also assist students in repairing and/or replacing unhealthy relationships. We are small, and our specialized school staff can quickly identify and respond to behaviors indicating relapse or symptoms of a co-occurring disorder.
Victoria graduated this past May, and during her time with us she blossomed into an active leader in the recovery community who shared her story in public high schools and advocated for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Preliminary studies suggest that Victoria’s case is not a fluke, but that recovery high school students experience significant reduction in substance use and mental health symptoms.
We all need to join forces to face the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our country. On our part, as a recovery high school, we are committed to staying abreast of current research, legislation, and evidenced-based interventions associated with prescription opioid abuse, prescription opioid addiction, and heroin abuse among adolescents.
When I started my career treating adult heroin users, sometimes I wished I could travel back in time to meet their adolescent selves and set them on the road to recovery from early on. In my current role, I hope that by helping teens struggling with opioid abuse today, we are making a dent in the number of adults addicted to opioids tomorrow.
* Not her real name
Julie McElrath (MSSW ’14) is executive director of University High School. If you are interested in learning more about the school and/or adolescent recovery resources in Central Texas, you can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.