Montana Academy’s unique approach makes sense of substance abuse and other “addictive” behaviors—e.g., compulsive video-gaming, repetitive shoplifting, compulsive viewing of pornography, hoarding, sexual promiscuity, as attempts to distract attention—within a developmental context.  Whatever other meaning “getting high” or “tuning out” may have, they are repetitive attempts to dispel the dysphoria of shallow or chaotic interpersonal relationships, compulsively-repeated efforts to forget all the failures at the normative academic and social tasks of adolescence—which psychological immaturity makes inevitable.

In this way, psychological immaturity and adolescent addictive behaviors are causally cross-related, the one often the occasion for the other.  Chronically-intoxicated teenagers cannot mature normally, and immature “addicted” teenagers cannot achieve self-control or sobriety without external supervision and constraint.  This being so, stopping the use of mind-altering substances (or other psychologically distracting compulsive behaviors) becomes a critical first step in any effort to remedy adolescent immaturity.  But also, the achievement of maturity has to be a critical goal in any definitive treatment, or prevention, of addiction.

For these reasons, every entering student soon receives a thorough assessment.  All students take an introductory (first-level) course to learn about addiction and compulsive distractions.  Those students who have demonstrated that they are at risk for addiction will join an intensive (three days per week) therapy group specifically designed for adolescents with these issues.  This group helps young people recognize and come to terms with the implications of relying upon mind-altering substances or processes such as video games or food-restricting to falsely and ineffectually achieve the developmental tasks of forming age-appropriate coping skills, a sense of identity, independence, and maturity.

The Level 2 group compliments (and is in addition to) the four regular weekly group therapy sessions in which students participate at Montana Academy, and lasts one to two semesters depending upon the depth of a teenager’s issues.  Upon completion of Level 2, students enter a process lasting the rest of their stay at Montana Academy.  Level 3 requires students to complete several therapeutic tasks in preparation of writing their relapse prevention plans.  Because this program is specifically designed for adolescents, special emphasis is placed on the social aspects of relapse prevention.  Ultimately, relapse prevention involves the grieving process as adolescents realize the necessity of letting go or seriously redefining a number of peer relationships.  Montana Academy provides students an average of six to nine months to complete level 3.  Letting go takes time and meaningful support.  Therefore, students at Level 3 are also invited to join a student-run weekly support group.

The heart of this approach is a recognition that addictions emerge from developmental struggles.  For instance, teenagers who are insecurely attached emotionally to important others discover that drugs temporarily provide a reliable surrogate. Or again, if a teenager struggles to achieve normal separation from his nuclear family, and experiences massive anxiety in his attempt to individuate, then video games provide a seemingly-safe alternative world, where interpersonal difficulties can be resolved with the click of a mouse.  Teenagers who deal drugs, or share them, or join others in “virtual” relationships on-line, are pretending to be grown-up, and may feel strong and effective, but actually are not educated, useful or effective in relationships.  The experience of intoxication or “mastery” in a video-game is a phony form of maturity, intoxicating, but unreal.

Conventional treatment often fails to take account of a teenager’s need to prop up a shaky, false sense of autonomy, and fails to address these underlying developmental difficulties. Moreover, short-term treatments (e.g., 28-day programs) were designed for adults.  Adolescents are not adults, and cannot think like adults, and so they fail to respond.  In our experience success (sobriety, or self-disciplined use) requires a sustained treatment, which interrupts addictive cycles but also propels onward the development of psychological maturity.  Sound decisions require adult perceptions of the world, and one’s place in the world  Such perceptions come from the give and take of reciprocal relationships.  A student’s sustained experience at MA helps them to practice, and to acquire, that self-understanding, and to practice social decision-making and close relationships.