Schools Become Ground Zero For Substance Abuse Treatment

February 18, 2016
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When they launched years ago, school-based health clinics were touted as a way to reach kids who weren't being seen regularly by a doctor.  Now, some Denver public schools have set up substance abuse clinics to reach students with drug and alcohol problems that might otherwise go untreated.

Denver Health therapists are staffing clinics at Bruce Randolph School and North and South high schools. Denver Health says its been flooded with referrals to its youth treatment program.  

Amanda Ingram, one of the therapists, spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. Edited highlights from their conversation are below. 

Do you find yourself daunted by this job sometimes? 

"Oh yes. This is my first time working in a school and it's the most acute population I've ever worked with. I was not expecting to see kids in such dire need of help."
What are you seeing at Bruce Randolph in terms of addiction?
"We're seeing a high acuity of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, high anxiety. We're seeing ADHD. And what's happening is we're seeing these students don't know how to cope with this. They've never received treatment before.
"And so they're self-medicating with marijuana or other substances and what ends up happening is that they become so acute and low-functioning that they would never actually make it to a clinic to receive help. So we have come to them. By going into the schools, they're able to access therapy during the school day when they would normally never receive any services like that."
What does therapy do for these kids?
"I'm actually surprised with the scores. Every four weeks, we test everyone for depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, everything under the sun. And their scores just plummet, it's amazing. No matter if their family is involved or not, their scores go from severe to mild, just after four weeks."
What's the role of legal marijuana in addiction?
"It's huge. In 2004, I think we were 14th in the nation and now, in 2013, we were third in the nation in terms of youth using marijuana, which is 56 percent higher than the national average. [...]
"What I'm hearing from the children is that it's legal, it's OK to use now, it's also natural. And because it's legal and their families and adult friends are using it, they feel like it's justified. And what they're doing is they're using so much of it now that they're kind of getting bored with it and graduating on to something stronger. This is just what I'm seeing in Bruce Randolph alone. I can't speak for the state of Colorado."
To what extent do you interact with law enforcement?
"Everything is confidential. I do have clients that will bring paraphernalia to school and even marijuana and other drugs and they will give it up to me anonymously and I will hand it over to the officer that works at the school and he will dispose of it. That way, the child doesn't get penalized for it. 
Why shouldn't the child get penalized? 
"They really are motivated to enter recovery and they're motivated to really just try and use pro-social behaviors and pro-social coping skills. So we really don't want them to be penalized or punished for stepping forward and saying here, I'm giving up this illegal substance, I want to change for the better."