Alyssa Dedrick was 15 when she began drinking and taking drugs. A year later, she found herself in her first treatment center. It wasn’t voluntary, and she missed hanging out with her friends, who were still experimenting with pot, OxyContin, Percocet and heroin. But her first treatment program didn’t work, because as soon as Dedrick went back to school, she went right back to her old ways. She received treatment four more times, with the same results.
Finally, she and her mother realized that the answer to her seemingly unstoppable problem was not the treatment she received, but where she went when it was over. After her fifth treatment program at the end of her junior year, Dedrick truly wanted to recover. This time, she and her mother decided, she wouldn’t go back to her old high school. Rather than facing the same temptations and triggers, surrounded by friends who weren’t committed to recovery, Dedrick started her senior year at Northshore Recovery High School. It was minutes away from her old high school in Massachusetts, but may as well have been on a different planet.
“I remember going in and thinking, ‘This is a place full of other kids just like me,’” said Dedrick, now 24 and a recent graduate of Clark University. Dedrick has been clean for five years now, and believes her life would be very different if she hadn’t finished high school at Northshore Recovery.
“There was a 50/50 chance of me either dying or getting better,” said Dedrick. “I think going to a recovery school really increased my odds, not only of recovery, but of survival in general.”
Recovery high schools on the rise
While teen drug use is nothing new, the proliferation of high schools designed for students in recovery is something of a 21st century phenomenon. The first recovery high school in the United States opened its doors in Minnesota in 1987, calling itself “Sobriety High.” Until recently, it was one of a handful sprinkled around the country. Today it is joined by at least 35 recovery high schools across the nation, with at least five more in development, Association of Recovery Schools founder Andrew Finch told NBC News.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, close to two million American students meet the criteria for drug or alcohol abuse. Yet less than eight percent of them receive the treatment they need. Those who do get treatment typically return to the schools they left in order to recover, and 75 percent of them relapse within their first year after treatment.
“Many of these teens are offered their previous drug of choice on their first day back in school,” said Finch, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has been studying recovery schools since the first one opened in 1987. “If you’ve gone to treatment, you’ve learned the dangers of your alcohol and drug use and you’ve made a decision to stop,” he said. “For you to go back as a teenager and be right around those same kids again … it’s going to be that much harder to stay with that decision to stop, if all of your buddies are continuing to use.”