Growing up in recovery: 3 peer programs that fill support gaps for young peopl

MHA Admin

Tue, 08/15/2023 – 16:03

by Makalynn Powell, MHA Peer and Youth Policy Fellow

Adolescence is supposed to be a time of carefree exploration of the world around us. In a perfect reality, teenagers should be worried about extracurriculars and college applications. Unfortunately, the environment our teenagers have inherited is plagued by constant technological distractions and premature exposure to mature subject matter. With relentless divisions and suffering seemingly unavoidable, it’s no wonder many teens are experiencing significant mental health challenges and, subsequently, substance abuse as a means of self-medication. In fact, more than 1.5 million youth in the U.S. reported a substance use disorder just in the past year.

My story

We could mull over my adverse childhood experiences and how, like many other young people, they contributed to my developing substance use disorder. But I’m more concerned with what I didn’t experience and how that shaped who I am today. I ended up abusing prescription drugs and being admitted to a residential drug abuse treatment center at 17 years old. After 11 months of isolation from reality, I returned to a world that no longer made sense. I didn’t feel like a teenager anymore and had virtually nothing in common with the strangers I’d once called friends. While my classmates were shopping for prom dresses and filling out college applications, I was sitting in church basements with people twice my age discussing our ideas of a higher power and how we managed to avoid getting high that day.

Despite feeling like an alien, I maintained my sobriety with the help of a strong recovery community in my area. But that is not always the case for many young people with mental health challenges. When resources that foster peer-to-peer connections are scarce and not easily accessible, young people must try to fit into a system that caters to only young children or adults. Programs focusing on youth navigating this critical time of self-discovery and coming of age are few and far between.

My work

My lived experience has benefitted my current work of researching these rare programs and identifying models that are effective for young people experiencing mental health challenges. Although peer support is not a new concept in adult mental health treatment, the idea and use of youth peer support is a foreign concept across the board. Many of the youth programs that exist today tend to be restrictive or operate with antiquated models that result in a more clinical atmosphere. This often leads to young people feeling confined by or unable to relate to a program structure that simply was not made for them. We must highlight youth-led organizations that elevate youth voices and put peer-to-peer connections at center stage. Programs that use formal and informal peer services will ensure our young people are adequately prepared to succeed and offer respite for this population underrepresented in mental health services.

Throughout my recovery, having few opportunities to interact with other young people caused me to face numerous “either/or” situations: I could focus on fostering relationships with the older, more experienced people in recovery, or I could choose to interact with people my age who were navigating the typical stages of adolescence without the experience of substance use or other mental health challenges. There were no established spaces that allowed those realms to intersect for young people. For instance, the premise of planning for my future was often contradicted by the recovery mantra of living “just for today” and left me overwhelmed and ill-prepared. When my classmates were discussing their ideas to change the world and make a difference, I felt constrained by my identity as a recovering addict because I rarely saw other people like me who were successfully navigating these spaces. It would be years before I learned that my experiences with mental health gave me a unique perspective and skill set to inspire hope and effect change.

The following present-day youth-focused programs could have positively impacted my recovery journey.

1. Hope Academy High School

High school can be a nightmarish experience for teens regardless of mental health challenges. Facilities dedicated to the academic and recovery needs of a student with substance use disorder almost seem like a fairytale for 17-year-old me. Returning to an environment full of people who understand the gravity of substance abuse and how it encompasses nearly every aspect of a person’s life can be extremely helpful. Institutions like Hope Academy High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, provide a standard curriculum under the umbrella of substance use recovery with a significant emphasis on peer support. This model ensures students receive a proper education and the necessary life skills for a young person navigating recovery. Hope Academy offers family therapy, after-school events, and hangouts that allow students to maintain an atmosphere of recovery outside their typical eight-hour school day. Attending a school like this might have lessened my feelings of shame and isolation by being close to peers already adjusting to our new way of life.

2. My Future is EPIC

My Future is EPIC follows a strengths-based, peer-led model focusing on goal-setting, life-planning, and self-advocacy for teens with substance use disorder. By emphasizing life planning, the program can address an area of concern for many teens, with and without substance use disorder, by identifying plausible, attainable goals and steps to achieve them. This component is crucial for young people who often struggle with conceptualizing their futures — especially since this is typically a pivotal stage for life planning and figuring out their identity. Education, employment, and healthy relationships are just a few areas addressed in this program’s model to help teens map out their future with the greatest chance for success. In addition to youth being program facilitators, My Future is EPIC relies heavily on youth peer-to-peer group sessions, allowing teens to connect with others on similar paths and see that these seemingly impossible life plans are achievable.

3. Lead A Change Project

Another game-changing program that recognizes the unparalleled value of peer support is the Lead A Change Project, created by the Building Audacity organization. This project teaches young people ages 11–25 the basics of community organizing and implementation. Participants learn from their peers the vital processes of community building and program development, how to effectively communicate with local leaders, and get the chance to effect change in their communities. Building Audacity understands that involving youth voices in youth program development is crucial for them to be effective. By allowing youth to play pivotal roles in their future, programs like this are fostering a generation of people who can recognize a problem and bring about actual solutions for the betterment of themselves and their peers.

Despite not having access to programs like these, I found a way to forge my path in the world of youth in recovery through advocacy and public speaking. But my journey might have been easier with access to peer programs. What began as a simple attempt at showing the world that young people also struggle blossomed into developing a platform that has allowed me to share my experience with others struggling with isolation, stigma, and feeling disadvantaged. I am encouraged by these programs that incorporate youth voices when seeking solutions to a system filled with gaps and disparity. By elevating the youth perspective and promoting formal and informal youth peer services, we can improve youth mental health care and implement preventive measures earlier in life.



The Capital City Emergency “Level II” Trauma & Wellness Center will house a “state of the art” Outreach Community Resource Center, that will provide case management, mental health community advocacy, and oversight from the M.I. Mother’s Keeper mental health advocates. 
The Capital City Emergency “Level II” Trauma & Wellness Center will offer patrons access to immediate coverage by general surgeons as well as coverage by the specialties of orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, radiology and critical care.
Our goal is to help people in the best way possible in an effort to preserve and to save more lives in the Nation’s Capital and beyond.

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Child Sex Assault Victim
Domestic Violence Victim
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and more…

Mental Health

At Capital City Emergency Trauma & Wellness Center patrons with mental health emergencies that include life threatening situations in which an individual is imminently threatening harm to self or others, severely disoriented or out of touch with reality, has a severe inability to function or is otherwise distraught and out of control, will have access to quality and psychiatric emergency services and referrals.

Physical Health

Whether your life threatening medical emergency involves excessive or uncontrollable bleeding, head injury. difficulty with breathing, severe pain, heart attack, vision impairments, stroke, physically collapsing, or seizure related, rest assured that our professionals will properly assess and evaluate the level of response that will be most needed to help provide stabilized care solutions and minimize complications as well as reduce early mortality.

Holistic Healthcare

We offer healthcare solutions that will support the whole person which includes their physical, psychological, emotional, social, & spiritual wellbeing. Research supports that because your mental state can affect your overall health we support and offer the inclusion of complimentary and alternative medicine(CAM) practitioners and naturopathic doctor recommendations and referrals as a part of our Outreach Community Resource Center’s care regimen and support.


Emergency care can typically result in traumatic injuries for which rehabilitation becomes an essential component of care in trying to achieve the best long-term outcomes for the patient. In addition to speeding up recovery times and helping to prevent further complications, rehabilitative care also helps to support a patient’s self-managed recovery once discharged from our facility. Our Outreach Community Resource Center works closely with our trauma center’s discharge department to assure that patrons requiring these services are linked with qualified professionals who will be accountable to the standard of care required to help the patron be successful in their recovery.

Social Services

Our “state of the art” Outreach Community Resource Center intends to promote “expansive” beneficial community enriching services, programs, case management, & linkage to “approved” partner resources and supports in all of the following intended areas and more:

Social Services

  • Clothing
  • Food Pantry
  • Housing/Shelter
  • I.D. Credentials
  • Senior Wellness Check
  • Toiletries
  • Transportation
  • Etc.

Extended Family Services

  • Child Care
  • Credit Counseling
  • Family Court Services
  • Legal Aide

Career Training

  • Apprenticeship programs
  • Computer/Graphics Training
  • Culinary Program  
  • GED Courses
  • Hospitality Training
  • Job Etiquette & Grooming
  • Resume’ Prep
  • Sales Training
  • Software/Technology workshops
  • Small Business Training

Return Citizen
Program Partner
(Bridging the Gap)

  • Case Management
  • Temporary Boarding/Housing
  • Transitional Program Registration

Prevention/Intervention Outreach,
Workshops, & Programs

  • After-school Behavioral Health Program
  • Civic Engagement / Volunteer Sign-up
  • Fatherhood Rites of Passage
  • Gun Violence Town Hall Forum
  • Life Coaching & Coping Strategies
  • Marriage Counseling Workshops
  • Medicare Informational Workshops
  • Mentorship Training
  • Parental Classes
  • Support Groups
  • Town Hall Discussions
  • Violence De-Escalation Training
  • Voter Registration

Nutritional Outreach

  • Cooking Demonstrations
  • Dietary Programs
  • Exercise Classes
  • Recipe Sharing Workshops
  • Meal Prep

Community Outreach

The Healthy DC & Me Leadership Coalition is partnering with the M.I. Mother’s Keeper Mental Health advocacy organization to provide outreach services on the community level as an aid in reducing the existent health inequities that many District citizens are facing as a direct result of the presence of debilitating social determinants and the lack of culturally appropriate care choices and realities for community members residing in marginalized and lower-income communities.

It is the vision and intentions of the M.I. Mother’s Keeper Mental Health Advocates organization to help improve the quality of living for citizens living in our Nation’s Capital and beyond by overseeing the delicate linkage to services and by maintaining higher standards of care accountability for deserving citizens of the Nation’s Capital.

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