Fairbanks part of website offering adolescent addiction research

Dr. Sigurd Zielke spent years researching adolescent addiction issues and working one-on-one with students affected by the disease. His work helped form the basis for Hope Academy, a recovery high school supported by Fairbanks and the only school of its kind in Indiana.

Now Zielke’s making his and other colleagues’ research available to practitioners working in addiction treatment and recovery.

Along with Hope Academy, Fairbanks and Indiana Wesleyan University, he’s played a seminal role in establishing the Adolescent Addiction Learning and Recovery Project (AALRP). Through the website AALRP.org, Zielke’s goal is to provide recovery high school educators/practitioners and other professionals who facilitate student recovery with:

  • A web-based forum for professional exchange
  • Relevant information about substance-impacted students and recovery
  • Practical strategies and tools to enhance student sobriety, learning, school success and personal development
  • Professional studies and links, and
  • Recovery educator professional postings

“Nationally there is very little data on the impact of substance abuse on learning – especially practical data for educators,” Zielke said, noting AALRP is specifically geared toward educators already working in recovery schools.

“There’s really little out there to help recovery educators in the classroom. Everyone’s been kind of winging it on their own, a motivation for them to get together once a year at the Association of Recovery Schools’ (ARS) annual conference for workshops. Besides the ARS conference, there hasn’t been much in between. What we’re trying to do is provide a service for the movement.”

Some of Zielke’s research tried to answer why otherwise smart adolescents do foolish things. The prefrontal cortex region of the brain is responsible for such activities as personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior.

“What research has shown is that substance-impacted adolescents are particularly weak in that area,” Zielke said.

And if it’s the brain of a child who’s from a family with a history of addiction, it can be even weaker.

“Just the genetic load in coming from a line of addiction gives someone a propensity to not being able to control impulses,” Zielke said. “Drugs and alcohol can make one particularly susceptible to that.”

He added that children with a genetic predisposition to addiction who start using illicit substances early in life can show brain weaknesses, which contribute to a propensity toward the use of these substances without the capacity for adequate command and control.

“What recovery does is reinstates that ability for command and control,” Zielke said.

Through his work at Hope Academy, Zielke developed the concept of “unpacking” when a student relapsed. He’s compared it to unpacking a suitcase – returning from a long trip, removing items and remembering how each related to the experience.

“What we found is by just getting it out – and not just running around in circles in your mind – the students held that information a lot better,” Zielke said.

In fact many students who participated in unpackings were much less combative than usual when confronted by their relapse.

“That’s how powerful this process is,” Zielke said. “When everyone’s participating in the problem solving, it cools things down.”

He conducted hundreds of unpackings over the years, most of which lend themselves to research. Along with professors from Indiana Wesleyan’s addictions counseling program; his wife Debra, a certified clinical researcher; and former interns now at IWU, Zielke has been quantifying the data contained in his unpacking maps. Each contain numerous data points that show patterns and can lead to additional studies.

The results of this research will be offered as a free resource on the AALRP website, along with smaller studies on patterns and pathways of adolescent substance abuse relapse. With only about 40 recovery high schools nationwide, generating this type of data is of great worth.

“There are no other recovery schools conducting research like this,” Zielke said. “We want Hope Academy, Fairbanks and Indiana Wesleyan to be thought leaders on this subject.”