Minnesota's largest school district is working to help students who have turned to substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anoka-Hennepin Schools have partnered with Hazelden Betty Ford, an addiction treatment and advocacy organization, to provide a licensed clinical professional to conduct screenings and assessments of high school students who may be struggling with substance use and mental health issues. Hazelden Betty Ford will also provide education and prevention services to students, staff and parents.

"Kids right now are looking for something to help them feel better and get out of their head during the pandemic," said Colleen O'Neil, a chemical health prevention specialist for Anoka-Hennepin schools. Students may look to drugs or alcohol to help take the edge off, which could potentially start a cycle of dependence, she said.

"We're at a time where we know that's happening so we really need to be proactive," O'Neil said

Cindy Doth, an outreach manager with Hazelden Betty Ford, already has been able to virtually meet with students in crisis and help direct them to services and will meet with students in person after the pandemic.

"The beauty of being virtual right now is that she can be in multiple places in one day," O'Neil said. "She's able to reach students right at that moment of crisis."

Doth said her services aren't a replacement for treatment or therapy, but they offer an entry point for students to receive support and get connected to other resources. And they allow school staff to focus more on the student's academic needs.

"We know that schools are a great first identifier of any kind of substance abuse," she said. "The earlier we can intervene, the better the outcome is for our students."

Distance learning has made it harder to connect with students and recognize their needs, which is why the partnership is all the more needed, O'Neil said.

"We really need to think about what we can have in place for when the students do come back into the building," she said.

The pandemic can increase feelings of anxiety and isolation for teenagers, which could lead them to use drugs or alcohol, Doth said.

Having a clinical professional provide additional substance abuse and mental health services eases the burden on schools that may not have specific positions for drug and alcohol counselors, she said.

Staff at P.E.A.S.E. Academy, a recovery high school in Minneapolis, are also finding ways to provide virtual support and services for its students, who are at risk of or in recovery from chemical addictions.

"A big part of adolescent recovery is social in nature, and we just can't fully replicate that online," said Michael Durchslag, the school's director. "When we physically see them five days a week, it's easier to guide them to better decisions."

The school also has fewer students this year, Durchslag said. A typical year usually brings about 35 students; enrollment has dropped to 25.

"I'm hearing parents wonder why they should choose a recovery school if it's just all distance," he said. "But providing these formal resources from professionals is just so important."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440