Web site designed for teen addicts

San Jose Mercury News, November 14, 2002

When San Jose high school principal Jacklyn Guevara was offered a chance to enroll some of her students as guinea pigs for a novel online drug and alcohol treatment program, she jumped at it. Guevara has only three drug counselors on her staff. And drug programs for youths are notoriously ineffective.

An Internet service that employs techno music, chat rooms, interactive features, videos and real-time counseling to help teens beat their habit? That sounded terrific. Where do I sign Foothill High School up, she asked?

After all, Guevara estimates about three-fourths of the 2,500 students in her alternative education district are addicted -- or nearly addicted -- to ecstasy, crack cocaine, LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. In her 43 years in the education field, nothing, she says, has ever truly made a dent in the rampant rates.

``We're desperate for everything and anything that's out there,'' said Guevara, executive director of the East Side Union High School District and principal of seven of the district's schools. ``What we're doing hasn't worked.''

Internet site www.teen getgoing.com was launched for teens nationwide Wednesday. It's still too early to tell whether the high-tech treatment program will boost recovery rates among teens, historically one of the most difficult groups of addicts to treat. The two pilot programs, including Foothill's, were just completed this year, and program coordinators don't yet have long-term success rates they can point to.

But addiction experts, including former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who is known for his tough anti-drug stance, said Wednesday they are optimistic that the service will speak to at least some of the 11 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds who admit to being steady drug users.

The Internet program does not replace traditional detox programs, but serves as an out-patient counseling service. The hook here is in the technology, which provides computer-savvy teens an anonymous, easily accessible and less expensive route to drug treatment.

With its flashy, interactive images and age-appropriate videos and music, the site -- launched by San Jose-based CRC Health Corp. -- might be more palatable to the MTV generation than more traditional programs, McCaffrey said. ``It's a tool to keep teens in recovery, to keep them engaged.''

McCaffrey admits that an online drug treatment program such as this one won't work for every teen. ``This isn't like bandaging a leg,'' McCaffrey said.

In a 2001 survey of more than 70,000 people, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 10.8 percent of youths between the ages of 12 and 17 were drug users. Additionally, about 28.5 percent of people ages 12 to 20 admitted they drank alcohol. About 6 percent of teens surveyed said they were heavy drinkers.

McCaffrey estimates that about 1 million teens are drug addicts. So it shouldn't be surprising that public health officials and educators are thankful for any new method of drug counseling that might reach teens.

The teengetgoing.com program, which costs $1,200 for 24 counseling sessions held over three months, is being praised because it provides youths wary of standing up at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting with the chance to discuss their problem in the privacy of their own home. It links youths to chat rooms where peers going through treatment discuss their issues. And it can be more entertaining than traditional counseling sessions, said Dr. Mike Mikesell, a school psychologist in Hillsboro, Ore., whose district served as the other pilot program.

The teengetgoing.com program is available to individuals, not just school districts, with a drug or alcohol problem. Parental permission is required. For additional information, call (866) 435-7999, toll-free.

Contact Julie Sevrens Lyons at (408) 920-5989 or jlyons@sjmercury.com.