Virtual group meetings divide teen addicts

Teens who are down and out can’t simply log on for group meetings after rehab.

By Dane Vaughn | NM News Port

This year 19-year-old Vincent C. has had six relapses and lost two jobs, his car and a place to stay. He got clean seven months ago but now the digital divide has put a speed bump on his road to recovery.

During the pandemic, restrictions on residential health care facilities have kept recovering addicts from attending in-person meetings. Recovery after rehab depends on communal support to keep addicts sober, experts say, but that can be difficult when you don’t have reliable internet access. 

Even getting into a rehab that provides group meetings poses obstacles that can make getting sober much harder than it already is. Vincent has been able to attend virtual meetings without hassle for the past two months at Serenity Mesa Recovery Center.

Jennifer Weiss-Burke is the executive director at Serenity Mesa, where they provide addicts ages 14-21 an environment with recovery resources. Over the past year, Weiss-Burke said that it has been difficult providing the treatment and resources they offer for a number of reasons.

“One of the toughest things is just getting kids in quickly,” said Weiss-Burke. Having to test for COVID-19 has delayed the process for immediacy. Although, Weiss-Burke said that over the course of the year the process has become more efficient. Quarantining and placement has been a deterrent for addicts looking for somewhere to stay the night. 

Weiss-Burke said the facility’s 14-beds have all been filled since last year. There are eight young men in line for a bed that is already being slept in. The number of available beds would fluctuate based on the school year or the weather before this past year. Weiss-Burke said that this year they’ve had a constant flow of referrals that have increased in urgency. Cases included attempts at suicide, overdose and detox without medical attention. 

The schools had been a major gateway into the recovery center. Referrals from schools had been reduced due to APS keeping them closed. Probation officers haven’t been able to do face-to-face visits and this, Weiss-Burke said, has stifled accountability. She said high school students who were monitored during the week by teachers and counselors are tending to flounder. 

Getting into a rehab that provides group meetings poses obstacles that can make getting sober much harder than it already is. Created by Dane Vaughn; Adobe Spark Post

“It’s a lot easier for them to use substances and not get caught. Not being in school and not being able to have people that they trust, and people that they see every day hold them accountable has just been a big factor in the rise in substance abuse that we’ve seen,” Weiss-Burke said. 

Despite the challenges of fighting addiction virtually, Weiss-Burke said that there are some benefits to online meetings. Accommodating to those already uncomfortable with face-to-face meetings being one. The intake process has been accelerated by digital means. Family meetings had remained virtual as Bernalillo County remained at the yellow level. The virtual aspect was utilized so that families separated by their county’s restriction status could meet altogether over the web.

It has been a huge help for those needing to occupy their time while at the recovery center but Jordan Masters, a social worker at Serenity Mesa, said that those discharged from the program don’t keep up with online support groups. 

“I’ve had multiple clients tell me here that they don’t enjoy Zoom NA or AA, or any addiction support group online. But they would be more interested in going out and meeting people in the community that they could really reach out to,” Masters said. 

Masters said that her clients feel as though they weren’t able to engage the structure and fellowship once provided by in-person support groups. Masters said kids especially need social interaction and that it would be better for them to meet others their age in person. 

Coupled with a digital divide between tax brackets, there were already challenges with providing group activities for teens in New Mexico pre-pandemic. Isolation has driven increased drug abuse and has minimized social opportunities among teens in Bernalillo County.

“They don’t have the resources or the money or the parental guidance, kind of helping them explore those avenues,” Masters said.

Zoom meets are not a convenient option for young people like Vincent who don’t have a place to stay and can’t finance internet access. Vincent said getting to the library for group meetings is a hurdle and if you did have a device it would require using the Wi-Fi at restaurants and cafes. When these places weren’t allowing indoor dining, it was slim pickings for internet access. 

As Bernalillo County transitions from yellow to green the road to fellowship isn’t as opaque. Capacity limitations for health care providers haven’t been adjusted from yellow to green but recovery centers like Serenity Mesa remain maxed out. Young addicts leaving treatment still face the risk of relapse without the physical network for companionship. 

“There are people who do care. Pick yourself back up, bounce back, keep working at it. You are worth it,” said Vincent. 

Dane Vaughn is a reporter for New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter @HalfGreatDane.