As an adolescent living with a substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health challenges, my family and I experienced great difficulties throughout my multiple attempts at sustaining post-treatment recovery. It often seemed like the moment I was released from treatment and set foot near my high school, the allure of returning to substance use was far too great and the ease at which I could access illicit substances far too abundant for me to even stand a chance.
A vicious cycle of substance use, negative consequences, residential treatment facilities, a return to the community and my high school with limited supports in place, recurrence of substance use, more negative consequences, a swift return to treatment, and so on, was the disruptive course that marked my adolescent years. Only after juvenile justice system involvement did I finally experience an interruption in the cycle long enough, and accompanied by severe enough consequences, that my course would be altered.
With juvenile justice system involvement being a traumatic experience in and of itself that sadly penalizes young people living with behavioral health challenges better suited for treatment than incarceration, I have long pondered the need for better ways to support youth who are struggling with substance use and co-occurring disorders. I was, after all, one of the lucky ones -- far too many young people do not exit this cycle; far too many young people die before they have the opportunity to experience the rewards of long-term recovery.
Substance use disorders (SUDs) led approximately 157,000 high school students to receive treatment for illicit drug or alcohol problems in 2012 (Finch, Moberg, & Krupp, 2014) and drug use across the nation is now the leading cause of accidental death among youth (ONDCP, 2015).
We know that young people today are experiencing substance use disorders at a significantly increased rate. We also know that even when young people receive treatment for a substance use disorder, the period directly following treatment is when they are most at risk for mismanaging their recovery and returning to substance use. Furthermore, with the role that peer influence plays developmentally for young people, we know that sending our young folks right back into the environments where peer influence can make a return to substance use far too easy is by no means a recipe for success. Rather than wait for juvenile justice system involvement or a tragic, preventable early death, the time is now to expand community-based resources that can support young people in their recovery journeys.
With the emergence of Recovery High Schools across the country, we now see an extraordinarily viable and much needed community-based resource that can support youth experiencing substance use disorder and its related challenges. According to the Association of Recovery Schools, "recovery high schools are secondary schools designed specifically for students recovering from substance use or co-occurring disorders." Recovery High Schools provide an academic and therapeutic sanctuary in the community in which young people have the opportunity to sustain their recovery, develop positive peer relationships, continue on in their education and grow in their emerging recovery identity. These schools provide the safety and support needed by so many young people to successfully build foundations of recovery that will serve as a springboard for success. As a growing number of young people and their families across the country have had access to and successfully utilized Recovery High Schools, we see an urgent need for even more young people to have the same opportunity for success. While much progress has certainly been made in the creation of Recovery High Schools, much progress remains to be had. In my city of Philadelphia alone, there is only one Recovery High School so far, The Bridge Way School, and access to even this one critical resource is limited by multiple systematic barriers.
In a world where young people can easily access high schools that specialize in building skills around mechanics, agriculture, creative arts and information technology, it is time that we create equal access to high schools that specialize in building the skills necessary for a meaningful and fulfilling life in recovery. It is time that we truly invest in the future of our young people and provide the resources and supports that will foster the ability to flourish. I encourage all of us to explore ways to support investing in the future of young people in our own communities by exploring how to make access to Recovery High Schools an even greater reality. While I was one of the lucky ones, recovery and a chance at life ought never be about luck -- particularly not when there are options we know can increase opportunities for success.