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One doctor, six counselors and a therapy dog help Denver students beat drug addiction

November 27, 2017

Many Denver youths struggling with drug abuse can find help and a safe haven as near as their school nurse’s office. Six schools in the Denver metro area offer substance abuse treatment during school hours through a program whose increased success may be tied to ease of access.

“We have good treatment for adolescents with substance abuse problems, but only 10 percent of them in Colorado access care,” project director Dr. Christian Thurstone said. “If we get into schools we can increase access to care.”

Thurstone helped design and start the program and now oversees it and its counselors, who started working with students in the 2015-2016 school year. Addiction treatment is part of a larger program that offers primary health care, mental health services and health education on the campuses.

“It’s very rare that only substance abuse is the problem,” Thurstone said. “Trauma, abuse, anxiety, depression; we make sure that the treatment we offer takes care of the whole child.”

School-Based Health Centers began appearing on Denver Public Schools campuses through a partnership with Denver Health in 1987. Students and their families can access services during school operating hours and schedule visits to ensure students don’t miss class and parents don’t need to leave work in the middle of the day. The addiction treatment program helps students identify, process and cope with mental health issues, cravings or possible trauma that may contribute to their desire to use drugs.

Children as young as 11 have sought treatment, but the average age of the program’s clients is 15, Thurstone said. The vast majority of students seeking treatment — 95 percent — report using marijuana, Thurstone said. Some report consuming alcohol or opioids.

Amanda Ingram, a counselor at Bruce Randolph Middle and High School, said although many students seek treatment at about age 15, they report starting to use drugs or alcohol when they were younger.

“In my 12 years it’s common to see kids saying they started using at age 11,” Ingram said. “Ninety-nine percent of my students this year are using marijuana. A few use other things in addition to marijuana. A couple use cocaine, one uses acid, several others use lean.”

“By the time they get to me at 15 they’re using multiple times a day; at 11 it was maybe once a week. They don’t want to do it. They feel like a slave to the drug, and using so often their tolerance goes up, which equals graduation to more severe drugs.”

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