Children suffering from substance use disorder rarely graduate from high school and often wind up in prison, die young, or both.  Recovery Schools provide the safe environment and support these children need to get an education and stay sober and have a nearly 90% graduation rate. The first graduate of New Jersey’s only public Recovery High School, The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength, Hope Recovery High School, is entering her senior year this fall at my alma mater, Rutgers University.

More than 63,000 Americans died of overdose fatalities in 2016, with 1,409 of those being New Jersey residents.[1] Our proximity to New York City, coupled with heavy drug trafficking operations at the Ports of Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey is home to some of the cheapest and most potent heroin in the state. In recent years, we have seen skyrocketing rates of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid nearly one hundred times more potent than morphine or heroin, present in seized narcotics samples and involved in overdose deaths.[2] Reports of overdoses to date put us on track to surpass that number in 2018, despite ever-increasing efforts to address the crisis.

Individuals with substance use disorders often require treatment to initiate recovery, and a great deal of local, state, and federal resources have been redirected to expand access to treatment. This is a critical first step, but it is not sufficient. Focusing solely on treatment reinforces an acute care model that has contributed to the worsening of this crisis. Addiction is a chronic illness, and long-term, community-based recovery support strategies must be made available throughout the state for any lasting improvement to occur.

New Jersey youth are disproportionately impacted by opioid and prescription medication abuse as compared to the nation at large. A 2015 study by Trust for America’s Health found that from 2011 to 2013, overdose deaths among 12-25 year-olds in New Jersey were 10.7 per 100,000, ranking as the 6th highest rate of overdose deaths in that age group as compared to other states in the country. Youth and young adults under the age of 24 comprised 20% of treatment admissions in New Jersey facilities in 2016, and in more than half of those cases, heroin or other opiates were reported as the primary substance used.

But when it comes to our young people, it is not just opioids that we need to be concerned with. Regardless of the substance of use, youth and emerging adults under the age of 25 are far more vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder than adults because their brains are not fully developed. It is estimated that one in seven Americans will develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives.[3] Of those, 90% begin using before the age of 18, which underscores the importance of early intervention strategies like recovery high schools as both a recovery support and a preventive strategy.[4]

The foundation of recovery from any addiction is to change people, places and things. That’s why children returning to school from rehab for substance use often relapse and drop out, unless they have an opportunity to attend a recovery school.

Since its inception, The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength, Hope Recovery High School has enrolled 25 students and has provided an array of services to over 45 youth and families, including comprehensive assessment, referral to treatment, mentorship, and social/recreational activities. Our graduates have gone on to attend Rutgers University, Montclair State University and Rider University, as well as trade and vocational schools, and have remained in touch with our staff and shared their stories of recovery with new students.

Recovery High Schools will be opening in the fall in Cape May and Monmouth Counties.  Every New Jersey county should have a Recovery High School.

A recognition that every county needs a Recovery High School: