Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Several teens in recovery illustrate their addiction using colored pencils in a room at Serenity Mesa Youth Recovery Center on Wednesday. Maddie, 18, uses a sharpie to write words like “manipulator,” “loss” and “save me” in jagged letters swirling around a girl covering her eyes.
Between the silence and scrape of pencils, the group does smile and laugh.
At first glance, you wouldn’t guess most of them have already been homeless, locked in a jail cell, overdosed on drugs and seen someone die from an overdose or shooting.
Jennifer Weiss-Burke, executive director at the 14-bed facility in Albuquerque, said the hurdles faced by youth suffering from an addiction are many.
An Aug. 18 Legislative Finance Committee report found the state ranked second worst in the nation for youth suffering from a mental illness and among the worst for youth suffering from an addiction.
“My opinion is it’s just getting worse,” Weiss-Burke said. “There’s a huge lack of access to services for youth under the age of 18.”
All of the teens at Serenity Mesa had to detox – often undergoing serious withdrawals – in a mental hospital or jail cell. Weiss-Burke said that’s because there isn’t a single youth detox facility in the state, although she hopes to open one in the next two years.
Weiss-Burke said if a teen comes to them detoxing on fentanyl they are sent to the emergency room, a “complete waste of their time and money and resources,” with a hefty bill and 12-hour wait.
“So you’ve got a young person sitting in the ER waiting and they’re detoxing. The odds of them staying until they can talk to somebody and get help are almost zero. And so then they leave, and then they’re back out on the streets,” Weiss-Burke said.
Most of the teens said they tried to reach out for help at school or elsewhere, long before they were heard. Phoenix, 16, said it took “a couple of cries for help.”
“If I tried reaching out for help, it was just judgment,” he said. “They just think badly of you. Really, it’s somebody needing help, using drugs to cope with something.”
At Serenity Mesa, Weiss-Burke said they take them to the movies or the zoo to break up therapy, an attempt to give them a childhood they missed out on.
“They’re just kids,” she said as she watched four of the girls pick flowers and place them in each other’s hair.
She said the situation is made worse by fentanyl, “the drug of choice” for youth. The 30-day waitlist for the West Side facility has been full for two years straight with those needing help.
Weiss-Burke said the center helps those over 18 who graduate the program get an apartment until they get back on their feet. But, she said, younger teens don’t have many options for transitional housing and places like Youth Development Inc. often have a wait list.
They recently tried to find a place for a 14-year-old boy recovering from a fentanyl habit but couldn’t. She said he ended up in a shelter and then the state Children, Youth and Families Department got involved.
Weiss-Burke said the solution is not “to have them bounce between shelters and treatments and jail and detention and living on some CYFD worker’s couch. That is, unfortunately, what a lot of these young people do … they just bounce from place to place to place.”
Freddie, 18, is from Socorro, an area with some of the lowest behavioral health access in the state. He said there should be more “lifelines,” numbers to call on buses and in public areas.
Freddie said he has been using drugs since he was 13 and has gone through multiple relapses and overdoses, going from heroin to fentanyl.
“I really have my whole life really felt like an outcast, felt alone. I’ve had a lot of trauma in my childhood and I felt like drugs was the only way I could find somewhat of a happiness, but it wasn’t even happiness. It was all in my head,” he said.
Freddie said he doesn’t know where he’s going to end up after Serenity Mesa.
“I don’t know what my discharge looks like, I don’t really want to think about that,” he said, growing quiet and looking down at his lap.
Weiss-Burke said fentanyl created a “perfect storm” for youth, with skyrocketing addiction rates and frequent relapses. She said a youth struggling with addiction who doesn’t have an “acute mental health condition” often won’t qualify for help at a residential treatment facility.
“They’ve got to reach a certain scale with their mental health before they get in. And right now we’re just trying to keep people alive,” Weiss-Burke said.
In New Mexico, 1,215 people have died from a fentanyl overdose since 2019. The LFC report states there are 134,000 people in the state with an untreated substance use disorder.
Weiss-Burke said Serenity Mesa serves almost 100% Medicaid users but the billing system has low reimbursement and is bogged down with unnecessary denials.
“A lot of it (is) back and forth … it’s denied, and we’re not really sure why, because they paid another claim that was exactly like it for a different person,” Weiss-Burke said. She said many treatment centers don’t accept Medicaid due to the rates and complications, and the system was too dependent on having enough beds filled to make ends meet.
The LFC report found that 20% of providers in the state do not serve Medicaid patients even though those with mental health and substance use disorders are “overrepresented in the Medicaid population.” The report suggests New Mexico could do more to leverage its existing behavioral health workforce by developing providers who accept Medicaid.
Weiss-Burke said the state could also make it easier for those providers to exist, streamline the process to get on Medicaid and increase reimbursement rates.
In the meantime, the youth are suffering.
“When you actually are in the real world, dealing with these issues and dealing with these kids that need help, that are very much ‘here today, gone tomorrow,’ every little bit counts,” Weiss-Burke said. She lost her own son at 18 to an overdose in 2011.
“Even if they’re just with you for a couple of days,” she added, “that couple of days may have opened a door that didn’t exist anymore.”