Four hundred youth between the ages of 15 and 24 died from opioid overdoses in Virginia between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. An alternative treatment model - recovery high school - seeks to help young people who are addicted. In WCVE’s ongoing series Facing Addiction, Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp reports.
In a bright, air roomy on the third floor of a church, a group of youth are in the middle of their day at Recovery High School. They’ve already done some studying and now it’s time for group discussion. Led by an adult in recovery, the teens suggest talking about humility and relationships.
Teen: My relationships are alright, they’re better than they were but whenever I get around my family, a lot of my character defects come out...
Recovery High School is an adaptable model that combines academics with services to support teens with substance abuse issues. Fifteen-year-old Chris heard about the program from a friend. Eighteen-year-old Jordan was referred here by his principal.
Chris: I was smoking marijuana and then I tried lots of different pills, like amphetamines and opioids but I really had a problem with benzos like xanax and klonopin and I was abusing that a lot.
Jordan: I was doing cocaine, I was doing oxy, I was at a point where I wanted to try heroin, I was on benzos a lot, did pretty much anything that came my way that would get me high.
The students say the drugs - even buprenorphine pills used to treat addiction - are easy to get in high school. There’s a “scene” of teens using and selling.
Chris: There’s only so close relationships you can get in the whole drug scene but I was close with a lot of people and they would give me drugs for free, so if I was hanging out and they would be like, “Yeah, I have some oxy” or even stuff that would make you throw up like Suboxone, I would be like, oh okay, it’s going to get me really high so that’s going to be awesome and I’m going to have a great time. It was when I started doing that stuff and feeling awful weeks after and my brain was not there, that’s when I really just kind of surrendered to the program.
The teens say leaving that environment and being surround by others in recovery, youth and adults, inspires them to work hard in their treatment. And, they’re not skipping school anymore’ they want to come here.
Stas Novitsky: It's just been a blessing to be able to be in recovery and help these individuals in their lives as well.
Stas Novitsky started the Recovery High School program at the McShin Foundation where he’s Director of Youth and Family Development. They went from one student last January to nine this Spring. No on has gotten new criminal charges; seven have not relapsed and two that did are still in the program. Some students are here for about 12 hours a day. Teachers from Henrico County come in to work with the students one-on-one or in small groups.
Novitsky: It’s very tough for youth to give up their friends, because they think that’s all they have and they think everyone is doing it, “If I'm doing it and all my friends are doing it that means the world this is doing it,” -- all they know is that little bubble that they're in. So by taking them outside of that and giving them a safe space at our facility where they can do their instructional work, they can do recovery groups, they can learn life skills, job skills, everything-- we create a better community for everyone involved.
For Jordan and Chris, Recovery High School has helped with their grades - Jordan’s on track to graduate after summer school. It’s created new and healthy social networks. And it’s put them in close proximity with people who pursue recovery with the same energy they used to put into getting drugs.
Chris: It doesn’t matter if they were nine months or a year clean, they still remember the time when they were right where I was and they were working hard, going through it all. It’s an ongoing process that I’m going to be dealing with for the rest of my life, but it’s awesome that here, I know that all the people in my class I can count on, I can call anytime.
Jordan: Here, people are like, being sober is cool. That’s what the difference is here, it’s so admirable to see somebody who’s changed their life completely by just never using no matter what and it’s just an absolutely amazing environment to be in and it’s one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me.
There are several dozen of these schools operating across the country, according to the Association of Recovery High Schools. Here in Central Virginia, Novitsky and the McShin Foundation hope to expand their program, with the goal of serving 60 to 80 students in the next three to five years. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.
Photos courtesy of the McShin Foundation.