Tom Schumacher and Fr. Paul Demuth, Envision Board members and Housing & Safety Signals Team

“I didn’t want to have, like, any emotion, so I thought, like, the best way to, like, put it down would be to do more and more and more drugs.”

So begins the opening convocation in a “recovery high school” in Denver, as one student faces his peers and begins the morning’s dialogue. This is one of 43 such institutions, part of a national nonprofit called Association of Recovery Schools, seeking to empower hope and success in students facing substance addiction, to “live a substance-free life while receiving an education.”

Addiction in various forms is on the rise and, along with it, a host of related crime and physical and mental health issues. High potency meth and fentanyl render users mentally destroyed or dead before traditional War on Drugs or Tough Love methods can be effectively applied.

So, how did we get here? What can be done? The signals point to new approaches to helping the most serious drug addicts and the challenges they face.

Fentanyl is a highly addictive additive to basically any other drug from marijuana to heroin. Traditional drugs like cocaine, heroin and marijuana are agriculturally based and have identifiable sources. Synthetic drugs like meth and fentanyl, on the other hand, can be manufactured anywhere using readily available recipes and raw materials. Potency and purity vary widely, and drug manufacturers are constantly tuning the end products to find the perfect balance of potency and lethality to avoid killing their best customers too fast.

What to do? Intervention, incarceration, housing first and jobs programs address symptoms but not the underlying issues. Twelve-step programs are effective, but they require a willingness to participate, and counseling suffers from a lack of therapists and barriers to entering treatment. Signals point to community as central to escape from drug addiction.

Every addict has a unique story and circumstance that tends to isolate them from the community at large. The breakthrough is in forming communities of peers at various stages of recovery who can credibly connect and counsel along the path to sobriety and stability. That is happening in the Denver recovery high school and at 42 similar locations throughout the country. These schools are designed for students who are recovering from substance use disorder and might also be dealing with related mental health disorders. Click here to read about the Denver program. Click here for more insights into the challenges that recovery high schools face, how addiction affects teens and the difference a recovery high school can make in the lives of its students.

To learn more about how peer led communities are helping addicts recover and how we got to where we are with meth and fentanyl, consider reading The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones, New York Times bestselling author of Dreamland.