By Lori Holleran Steiker
Newspapers and magazines are full of stories of adolescent and young adults struggling with addiction. Stories of youth overdoses flood the media, the death rates for overdose in Americans aged 15 to 24 more than doubled from the early to mid-21st century nationwide. This trend serves as an ominous backdrop to the findings of the Texas School Survey of Substance Use, which shows that Texas high school students were more likely to report lifetime use of alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy, and methamphetamines compared to their peers nationally.
Less attention, however, has focused on the dynamic changes in new modes of intervention that provide hope to young people seeking recovery. Awareness and support of these options is essential to the move forward in this arena.
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. Medical management of early recovery is one viable direction, with pharmacological interventions such as Suboxone or Naltrexone that can help assist individuals in the transition from illicit opiate use to a drug-free life. 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 tradition of removing and isolating individuals in 28 days of inpatient care to then return them to their previous worlds, full of relapse risk and triggers.
When teens receive treatment, it is often counterproductive for them to return to the very same environment where they were unable to succeed in the first place. Discouraging success rates have been documented for kids who return to their previous high schools after residential treatment.
One emerging alternative to address this problem 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 a substance use disorder. Young people who attend these schools get a chance to connect with other youth and staff supportive of recovery, to be in an environment free of substance use triggers, and to 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 in the National Association of Recovery Schools, five of which are in Texas. I have had the privilege of being part of the creation of the first recovery high school in Austin, University High School, which opened its doors in fall 2014.
Another form of support that is growing but not fully realized are collegiate recovery programs on university campuses. For reasons similar to the ones described above, it is important that university students have levels of support beyond local twelve-step meetings. Texas is leading the way with this model, as shown by the success of The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Students in Recovery (CSR). CSR has recently garnered support from the Regents, who have allowed for dissemination of this model to all nine UT Campuses.
Peer recovery coaching and mentorship are also emerging as key for youth in recovery. One of the main innovation at University High School in Austin is that the young adults in the CSR are mentoring and modeling sober living on a campus for the recovery high school students.
The depth of the problem and the limited effectiveness of treatment in itself call for imaginative and energetic responses. Not all solutions will work for everyone, but we have to develop more resources and awareness so students can find their individual paths to recovery with support along the way.
Lori Holleran Steiker is University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the School of Social Work.