GLENWOOD SPRINGS (AP) – Sara Bak recalls a particularly difficult day a couple of weeks into her six-week stay at Valley View Hospital’s in-patient Youth Recovery Center 12 years ago when, in her words, “I lost my cool.”
“They tell you when you come in that the doors aren’t locked, and you’re not being forced to be here,” Bak said of the youth addiction treatment program. “We all have bad days, but teenagers don’t always have the best coping mechanisms.”
So, only 16 at the time, she took off and managed to wander a few blocks to the grocery store in search of a cigarette. With no money, no phone and no place to go, she quickly began to rethink her decision.
“The rule is, if you leave, you don’t get to come back,” she said. “But they gave me a second chance, and I’m very glad they did.”
Today, Bak remains clean and sober, is a contributing member of the community, has a good job at NAPA Auto Parts in Glenwood Springs, and is a busy mom and aunt helping to raise two kids.
Hers is one of the hundreds of success stories for the Youth Recovery Center, which marked its 30th anniversary in January of helping adolescents, ages 15-18, deal with and overcome drug addiction and to address mental health needs as well.
“There are lots of places in Colorado where an addicted adolescent can go to get detoxed in three to five days,” said Dr. Paul Salmen, longtime family practitioner at Glenwood Medical Associates and a co-founder of the YRC program, who still serves as its medical director.
“We realized early on that the nature of adolescent addiction is such that detox is just the very beginning,” he said. “A brief detoxification is just a short interruption in what’s likely to be a series of relapses.”
From its formative years starting in 1987, the idea was to offer a more comprehensive approach to teen drug addiction. Still today, the YRC is a unique, in-hospital residential treatment program that has served youth from nearly every county in Colorado based on referrals from probation officers, case workers, parents, therapists, teachers, medical professionals and adolescents themselves.
The goal was to offer a longer-term, more intensive program that involves a thorough medical and psychological evaluation, recreation therapy, academic studies and support, family involvement and medication management.
“From the start, we help a kid understand how the drugs have been affecting the five most important parts of his or her young life,” Salmen said, “... your family relationships, your friendships, your school, your health and your freedom.
“That helps to begin to open a kid’s eyes as to what really happened as a result of their addiction,” he said.
The YRC operates as a 10-bed unit within Valley View Hospital. About 60 percent of the clients are direct juvenile court referrals, while others come after spending time in a youth detention facility. A small percentage is self-referrals, Salmen said.
In 30 years, the YRC has served approximately 1,800 youths from all over the state. In the past 10 years, according to a recent report, the majority of clients, 107, have come from Larimer County, followed by El Paso County with 83, Mesa County with 69, Boulder with 56 and Weld with 46.
Since 2006, 36 clients have come from Garfield County.
TestimonialsBak was on probation and headed to detention after three years of her life “slipped away” when she fell in with the wrong crowd at age 13 and started using methamphetamine.
“I was basically given an ultimatum, either YRC or DYC (Division of Youth Corrections),” she said. “Being a spiteful teenager I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll do it to please the masses.’
“But when I got there I realized that I really needed some help, and that I was definitely going down the wrong path.”
The therapists, doctors, teachers and other staff at the Youth Recovery Center work to “strip you down to your core,” Bak said.
“It’s a way of saying your feelings are important. They want us to feel mad, and to feel sad, and to feel happy ... mainly, just feel,” she said. “Because, as a drug addict you do anything to try to cover up your feelings.”
Had it not been for YRC, Bak said she’d either be dead, in jail, “or in really bad shape. I definitely wouldn’t have anything that I do now.”
Brittiany Pennartz of Gunnison said her troubles started as a pre-teen when she confided in an “older guy” who introduced her to hard drugs. It took until she was 17 before she had a court order to attend Valley View’s youth recovery program.
“YRC helped because they taught us about diet, exercise and overall health, and they got us doing plenty more stuff to find something besides drugs to love,” she said.
“Still today, the aftercare at YRC helps me to reach my goals and dreams and have support,” said Pennartz, who is 23.
She now lends support to some of the former clients who were in the program at the same time she was, and is studying to become a counselor with an emphasis on helping addicts who are struggling.
“My advice to others in that journey is to really let go of anyone who even reminds you of your drug addiction,” Pennartz said. “You can love someone from afar but you have to care about yourself and your recovery more than others. Do not tackle addiction alone, you will need supporters and you can’t be afraid to get help at any stage in your recovery.”
Mental health focusAccording to Dr. Salmen, while about 50 percent of teens in Colorado say they have used alcohol or marijuana within the last month, only about 1 to 2 percent will develop substance abuse disorders.
“Almost always, we see a dual diagnosis of something else that’s going on, whether it’s major depression disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar or anxiety disorders,” Salmen said.
“It’s often the original trigger for how fast someone will fall into substance abuse and addiction, and it’s also the key to helping them attain and maintain sobriety,” he said. “If you don’t treat the underlying disorder, they don’t stay sober.”
Mind Springs Health, which at the time the Youth Recovery Center was started was known as Colorado West Mental Health, was instrumental in developing the model.
“The big advantage for the kids is having all of the resources of this great hospital behind us, and their support has been huge,” he said.
Janeil Sowards has been with the YRC for five years as clinical supervisor and will become the interim program director next month.
“I like that it’s a holistic program, and that we assess everything on intake so that we can help them overcome their addiction and start working on their aftercare,” Sowards said.
“It’s important for the kids to feel supported, and we have very few who don’t make it through the program,” she said.