Substance misuse is not the root problem: What a Recovery High School can teach us about teen sobriety
Fortis Academy, a recovery high school located in Texas, gives children the tools to get sober and stay that way without disrupting their education. As a guest on The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, principal Travita Godfrey shares tactics all parents can use to support their children along their sobriety journey.
Teen substance misuse today is off the charts. Parents and educators are aligned in saving our children, but tough love solutions aren’t working. Dr. Travita Godfrey says stopping this crisis requires a different approach—one that’s proven effective every day in an innovative recovery high school in Harris County, Texas.
“Substance misuse is a problem, but it’s not the root problem that is driving our children’s behaviors,” says Dr. Godfrey, principal of Fortis Academy, one of only 40 recovery high schools in the United States, which aims to both educate students and support their sobriety. “It often stems from a deeper hurt or pain. When we address this pain in a supportive environment, we can help them heal.”
Fortis Academy’s overarching philosophy is to move from a mentality of punishing students to helping them, says Dr. Godfrey, who is the latest featured guest on The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, which serves as a single source of research-based guidance for parents, educators, and students. (Listen at https://themayolab.com and on Apple and Spotify.)
From academics to treatment, to recovery coaching, to counseling services, to the meals served on campus, everything at Fortis Academy is personalized and customized to the students, says Dr. Godfrey. The high school’s small size (which maxes out at 30 students) helps the staff provide the individualized care students need.
Here’s a list of dos and don’ts that parents and educators can use to help teens recover from substance misuse based on the protocols at Fortis Academy.
DO help your teen address any underlying trauma (it is often a driving force of substance misuse). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are potentially traumatic childhood events such as abuse or neglect, have been linked to substance misuse in adolescence and adulthood. Addressing this trauma is an important part of recovery. Of course, parents may shy away from this, because they worry that they have played a role in their child’s trauma. Regardless, it is important to give children a chance to get in touch with the pain that might be an underlying cause of their substance misuse.
DO repair trust. This is essential for recovering individuals, says Dr. Godfrey. People who have experienced ACEs have often had trust broken in their relationships. That’s why Fortis Academy focuses strongly on counter-ACEs with the intention to rebuild trust and safety in students.
“We focus on relationships and on really building that rapport with students so they can have that trust with us,” says Godfrey. “Because a lot of times these students have heard people say, ‘I’m going to be there for you,’ or, ‘I’m going to do this for you,’ and that hasn’t panned out for them—and they are a little bit apprehensive. So we have to earn that trust. It’s a two-way street, and we’re transparent up front about that.”
DO help them find their joy. The thing all children want above all else is joy, says Magee, who became a student wellbeing activist after his son William died of an accidental drug overdose in 2013. “Parents and teachers must become joy leaders, helping children unlock the joy they want and deserve,” says Magee. “It is a lifelong pursuit, and the earlier children learn the tools that give them true joy, the better off they’ll be.”
Dr. Godfrey is helping teens find joy in several ways. A hallmark feature of Fortis is its culinary arts therapy program. Students learn to cook delicious meals while learning about nutrition, healthy foods, and money management. The school also operates a mini catering business that teaches students customer service skills, time management, and client relations. Fortis Academy also enlists the help of Blake, a therapy dog who spends time on the campus working with the students. They also have weekly equine therapy, spending time with and caring for horses.
DON’T expect recovery to be linear. It’s important that both parents and the child understand that the recovery process will be full of ups and downs. Your child might relapse or have bad days. When everyone knows this truth up front, it is easier to navigate the rocky road ahead.
“It’s hard being a parent and looking at your student not doing well,” says Dr. Godfrey. “So we really try to help parents understand that the process is not going to be a linear process, and that it is a learning curve—and it is the journey of not just the student but the parent.”
DO get involved in your child’s recovery process. Fortis Academy encourages parents to be supportive coparticipants in their child’s journey to sobriety. They provide support in the form of family workshops, dinners, movie nights, and so on. Again, achieving trust is the goal.
“We have activities that our parents and students can participate in together as a family because we know that sometimes some of those family relationships have been broken,” says Dr. Godfrey. “And so we try to build up trust as much as possible by responding to the needs of not just the family as a whole, but those individuals who are part of that family.”
DON’T be punitive; it doesn’t work. Magee and Godfrey agree that punishing or shaming children into sobriety is ineffective. This is why Fortis Academy encourages students to be honest about relapses. “We want to teach students to get to the point where they are not hiding relapses, because when they are being honest and open, they can understand the things that trigger them and they can get better,” says Dr. Godfrey.
DO take advantage of peer-to-peer counseling. Often, students in the same age range as your children can engage with them more deeply than you can, says Magee. This is why he advocates for peer-to-peer education in which children communicate with other children on their terms. Fortis Academy uses group counseling, some of which is led by students’ peers to allow students to help each other in their recovery.
DON’T try to punish your children into sobriety. “Being punitive about addiction does not work because it is a disease and not a moral choice,” says Magee. “It’s not about being good or bad, so we can’t treat it that way.”
Fortis Academy uses a proactive approach that helps students instead of shaming, blaming, and punishing, says Dr. Godfrey. Prior to the monthly drug tests, she talks to students and asks them, “Hey, what are we going to see today on the test?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, they are honest because they aren’t going to be punished; they are going to be supported.
Finally, Dr. Godfrey has advice for all parents and educators: Don’t be afraid.
“Don’t be afraid to embrace what’s going on with our children,” concludes Dr. Godfrey. “Come out of denial and understand that it doesn’t matter who the student is, it doesn’t matter who the parents are, it doesn’t matter what the school is, some students will have this issue. And we can’t fear it; we can’t push it under the rug. We have to embrace it and really understand what’s happening and be open to that.
“This is a paradigm shift for public education to look at substance misuse like we would anything else. It’s not an idea of punishment; it’s an idea of learning and getting better and understanding that if we want that person to become a productive citizen—a person who’s out in the world doing great things—we have to give them the tools to do that.”
About Travita Godfrey:
Dr. Travita Godfrey serves as principal of Fortis Academy, which she sees as a safe haven for students’ academic and personal growth. Located in Harris County, Texas, Fortis is just one of 40 recovery high schools in the country. With 22 years of experience in education, Dr. Godfrey guides students recovering from substance misuse each day. She holds a master’s in counseling from Houston Christian University and a doctorate in public health from the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Godfrey is also a certified recovery specialist.
About David Magee:
David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s the creator and director of operations of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. He hosts The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, available at https://themayolab.com and on Apple and Spotify podcast platforms, a one-of-its-kind program for parents aimed at helping students and families find lasting wellbeing. He’s also a national recovery advisor for the Integrative Life Network. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.