• John Roesch

Back to School in Recovery

Early recovery from a substance use disorder can be challenging for anyone, but perhaps not more so than for the countless students in recovery who, while committed to sustaining their sobriety, are thrust back into an environment where the temptation to use can exist at every turn. Those who find recovery in a 12-step program (or any recovery program for that matter) are encouraged to change the people, places and things that can trigger relapse, but for those still in school, that can be easier said than done.

As society has begun to recognize that addiction is a chronic disease and that recovery must be supported throughout a lifetime, more and more options are becoming available for those young people who want to pursue their education in a safe/substance-free environment. As such, there has been a marked increase in both recovery high schools and collegiate recovery programs throughout the nation in recent years.

The Emergence of Recovery High Schools

According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) an estimated 1.3 million young people between the ages of 12-17 are addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Of that number, approximately 12% are admitted to treatment facilities, and of those, about 50% return to active substance use within a year. These figures are unacceptable and frankly, terrifying. The good news is that there is an evolving solution that could greatly reduce relapse rates and simultaneously, save millions of taxpayer dollars by averting teens from the criminal justice system and keeping them in the educational system. The solution is Recovery High Schools.

According to the national nonprofit Association of Recovery Schools,

Recovery high schools are secondary schools designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder or dependency. Although each school operates differently depending on available community resources and state standards, each recovery high school shares the following goals:

  1. To educate all available and eligible students who are in recovery from substance use disorder or co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

  2. To meet state requirements for awarding a secondary school diploma

  3. To support students in working a strong program of recovery

Inside the Specialized 'Recovery' High Schools Designed Just for Teens With Addiction (Time, January 25, 2019) addresses some of the research demonstrating that these high schools are truly helping keep students off drugs and alcohol, and in the classroom. In fact, a 2017 Vanderbilt University study showed that “students in recovery schools were significantly more likely than those not in such schools to report being off drugs and alcohol six months after they were first surveyed. And the average reported absences among the 134 recovery school students in that particular study were lower than the other students.”

First appearing in the late 1970s, there are about 40 Recovery high schools in the United States today. Not surprisingly, their success is partly due to the fact that the students are with sober peers, as well as teachers and counselors who support their sobriety. While 40 is not nearly enough, there is a growing movement behind bringing these schools into more and more communities.

The groundbreaking 2016 documentary, Generation Found, examines how a community ravaged by addiction, came together to build a recovery high school in Houston, Texas – and has inspired recovery support advocates to begin exploring how they could bring a recovery high school into their community. For anyone interested in learning more about finding or creating a recovery high school in their community, check out the Association of Recovery Schools website and/or stream Generation Found online.

The State of Recovery High Schools in New York

In his 2017 State of the State, Governor Cuomo outlined a proposal to create New York’s first recovery high schools in areas around the state that have been hit hardest by alcohol and drug addiction. According to the Governor’s proposal, enrollment will be open to all high school students with a diagnosis of a substance abuse disorder and a commitment to recovery. As of this writing, the first Recovery High School to open in NYS is located in Broome County and others are expected to follow.

Recovering on Campus - Collegiate Recovery Programs

According to SAMHSA’s 2017 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, about 5.1 million young adults age 18 to 25 battled a substance use disorder in 2017, which equates to 14.8% of this population and about 1 in 7 people.

Not surprisingly, achieving and/or sustaining recovery on a college campus can be difficult, if not impossible. With so much emphasis put on the “party” scene, it’s easy for students in recovery to feel isolated, depressed and at high risk of relapse. In fact, many young people in recovery (and their families) may feel it’s safer to forego college and the pursuit of education altogether. Fortunately, more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the need to provide recovery supports for those sober students who wish to pursue their education in a safe, substance-free environment, and as a result, collegiate recovery programs (or CRPs) are springing up at schools from coast to coast.

According to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), “a collegiate recovery program (CRP) is a College or University-provided, supportive environment within the campus culture that reinforces the decision to engage in a lifestyle of recovery from substance use. It is designed to provide an educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other.”

CRPs vary from institution to institution offering everything from 12-step meetings to substance-free housing, roommate matching, counseling services, recovery-themed or substance-free events, etc. To date, most have been student and alumni led with input and support from the school’s administration and behavioral health staff. Additionally, some of the recent growth of these programs is a direct result of legislation at the state level. For example, Maryland now requires that each school within its university system have a recovery program in place. In New Jersey, all public universities with at least 25% of students living on campus are required to provide substance-free housing.

If you’re interested in learning more about collegiate recovery programs for yourself or a loved one, visit

Here you’ll find a wealth of information and resources including the 2019 National Collegiate Recovery Directory, blogs, newsletters, videos, upcoming events and more.

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