Sobriety, mental health and the pandemic: A look inside Colorado’s only recovery high school

On a recent Monday, Keith Hayes is rounding up students inside 5280 High School in Denver for a morning meeting.

“Let’s go. Let’s go,” he yells. “Come on please.”

Dressed in typical teen attire – jeans, hoodies, T-shirts – they descend the massive steps into the open auditorium. Hayes, the school’s director of recovery, poses the question of the day. “How has your mental health been a struggle that may have affected you and your sobriety? How has your sobriety affected your mental health?” he asks. Every day starts like this: with a recovery program called Summit. Students who are in recovery for drug and alcohol abuse may want to So can share. A teenage boy goes first.

“I didn’t want to have any feelings. So I thought, like, the best way to reduce it would be to take more and more drugs,” he says.

A female classmate is next. He started taking drugs for fun and partying, then his habit turned into addiction. Another shares that his addiction undermined his mental health. A third announces an upcoming milestone.

“Like two days, I’ll be six months sober,” says a teenage girl as her classmates cheer.

5280 is a recovery high school within the Denver Public Schools. The summit program is only a part of the curriculum. The charter school follows a project-based learning model, where students focus on learning such as building a tiny house for someone experiencing homelessness. They also take traditional subjects such as English, Maths and Spanish. Every afternoon students participate in wellness electives that focus on developing the whole person, topics range from basketball to journaling. The school adheres to DPS educational requirements and policies.

“Teen Culture Is Drug Culture”

There are at least 45 recovery high schools nationwide and 5280 is the only one in Colorado. The charter school opened in 2018 and enrolls over 100 students each year. Most of them live in Denver but they also come from all over the Front Range and even out of state.

“The mission is to help kids who are struggling with substance use not only learn how to live a substance-free life, but to be educated,” says founder and executive director Melissa Mouton.

When COVID-19 hit in March of 2020 and schools closed, that mission became more difficult. 5280 quickly felt the effects as students began using drugs and alcohol again.

Melissa Mouton, founder and executive director of 5280 Recovery High School poses in front of a Black Lives Matter poster designed by students.

“Within 60 days, by the end of that school year, our relapse rate increased more than tenfold,” she said. “I was scared we were going to have a kid overdose and die.”

The stakes were high. 15- to 24-year-olds die of overdose in Colorado more than double Between 2019 to 2020.

In August 2020, 5280 reopened with in-person learning. The school divided students into groups and followed safety protocols such as masking, distancing and rigorous sanitisation. It was a difficult decision but in the end what Mouton said was right.

“It was a non-negotiable for us because our kids need social connection. They need to be part of a community,” she said. “They literally can’t survive, isolated at home on a computer screen. “

It was a challenging time for kids everywhere. Most were trapped at home: lonely, isolated and stressed. Nearly 19% of Colorado youth aged 11 to 18 reported poor mental health in 2021, nearly double the rate reported in 2017, according to the Colorado Health Access survey.

“There’s a whole collection of things that affect young people’s mental health,” said Vincent Echiti, President and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.

In 2020, those things included increased access to drugs, family members dying of COVID, the killing of George Floyd, and school closures.

“That isolation associated with distance learning has had an impact on children whose development really depends on their access and regular interaction with peers and others,” he said.

When Kids Are in Crisis, According to Colorado’s 2022 Youth Mental Health Report many of them Turn to alcohol or drugs to cope.

“Teen culture is drug culture, unfortunately,” Mouton said. “What drives kids is anxiety, social anxiety, depression. There are many co-occurring disorders in kids.”

“Difficult to pacify the youth”

Teenager Alexis Castillo loves being around people. The 16 year old always had big friend groups and slept with them all the time. When the pandemic began, Castillo was in 7th grade and drank alcohol and used fentanyl regularly. Then she got stuck at home, lost her access to drugs and was forced to quit cold turkey.

“It made me very bad mentally, and I think I was probably the most depressed I’ve ever been during the pandemic,” she said.

He also missed his friends. Her depression increased so much that she even tried to take her own life and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

“I couldn’t find a way to live because there was no purpose in it. If I wasn’t going to be around people, that was my purpose for being at that point,” she said.

Castillo recovered and eventually began using again. But by the time she started her freshman year of high school, she was sober and enrolled in 5280. At first she loved the school but after a while she changed and stopped coming to class. She didn’t want to take accountability for her actions.

“Because it’s something they’re really good about, like if you’re recovering and you’re trying to get sober and you go here, they give you a lot of accountability for that,” he said. “It was nothing I wanted.”

Castillo collapsed and school staff helped him into rehab. Three months later she was back on the 5280, sober and ready to work.

“It was nice to be back here with people who really supported me and looked up to me at some very low points in my life,” she said.

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Other students at 5280 Alexis Castillo High School pose in the main area of ​​the school. He’s been sober for 11 months.

Recovery is fluid and personal. 5280 has an open door policy and students can attend as long as they wish. The school is intentionally kept below capacity so teens can enroll at any time. A student will not be expelled if they happen again, but there are two requirements. Students must remain sober and must participate in an external remedial program.

“The staff treats us like we’re no less than them and they’re super understanding sometimes, like we need another person in the classroom with everything going on,” she said. “It’s really hard to be sober in youth.”

About a third of the school’s staff are recovering themselves, including Brittany Kitchen.

“The number one step is just to let them know right out of the gate, whatever is happening, that we love them. We are here for them,” she said.

Kitchen is the school’s recovery coach. Her work ranges from teaching students how to navigate recovery and control their emotions to monitoring how their day is going. She compares herself to a hall monitor, constantly on the lookout for changes in their behavior.

“I kind of become the first line of sight when kids are experiencing something that’s a little too big for them to process,” she said.

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Keith Hayes, Director of Recovery at 5280 High School poses in the computer lab.

Some of these difficulties stem from trauma experienced by students. Situations that involve sex and drug trafficking, sexual abuse, and abandonment. Students also have to deal with the trauma they caused, actions that have landed them in prison or on probation, Kitchen said. Kitchen’s own recovery journey has helped her connect with teens and provide coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma.

“A lot of times it just starts with, ‘Hey, breathe in, breathe out through the nose and breathe out through the mouth. Put your hand on your heart, that’s the aim,'” she said. “It really gets them out of that painful cycle.” able to take them out, bring them back to present reality, and then cover them with love.”

According to the Association of Recovery Schools, these students have higher graduation rates, attend school more often and are more likely to remain sober than their peers who receive treatment and attend a traditional high school.

Last May 32 students of 5280 graduated and the school has plans to expand. Administrators regularly receive calls from people in Colorado and across the country wanting to know how to start a recovery school.

“What we do is so unique and so specialized that most teachers have no idea what we do,” Mouton said. “In every major metropolitan area, there should be a place for kids who want to go to school and stay sober and learn how to live a substance-free life.”

“able to help each other”

Students continue to share their thoughts on mental health and sobriety in 5280’s Morning Recovery program.

A teenage girl says, “When I was young, I didn’t even think I’d live to be 15. I thought I’d die at 14.” “It’s just so crazy that I’m 15 and I’ve had about nine months sober and I’m really like, I love my life and I love myself.”

The daily meeting is an opportunity for students to build community and support each other, which experts say is key to maintaining sobriety. Each student ends their part by saying “I love you”. a sentiment immediately and convincingly repeated back to him by his teammates.

Castillo sits on the top bleacher with several other students. She chose not to share today but still feels the love. She has been sober for 11 months.

“We are all really able to help each other in a unique way. I really have friends who care about me today and that really wasn’t something I used to have,” she said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. 988, Colorado’s Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, is available 24 hours a day.

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