Tag Archives: Children & Adolescents

Assessing ‘ideal’ versus ‘real’ family characteristics with adolescents

By Brandon S. Ballantyne April 13, 2015

When working with adolescents in a group setting, it is important to provide opportunities to explore, evaluate and process the dynamics that occur within their homes. After all, eventually they will be faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to apply what they have learned in therapy to situations at home.

I have formulated a creative, psychoeducational task that allows adolescents to assess and explore the similarities and differences between their “ideals” and what really occurs within their unique and, at times, chaotic family relationships. I have broken this down into three simple categories. I ask the housedrawing_1adolescents to draw an illustration of a house. Inside the house are to be three distinct rooms with boundaries, because boundaries are healthy no matter how you slice that pie. The adolescents usually laugh at that analogy. Utilizing that humor, I then invite them to talk more about the boundaries at home.

I next ask them to label each of the three distinct rooms in the house. One section is labeled “Think,” another section is labeled “Do” and the last section is labeled “Say.”

I ask them to title their paper “Family Shoulds.” As a group, we discuss what the word “should” refers to. Typically, one group member will mention his or her impression of the word “should” as a reflection of a demand, expectation or wish. All of those definitions are acceptable for this task.

The idea is to have each group member write a list of three items for each category inside the house: three things they believe a family “should think,” three things they believe a family “should do” and three things they believe a family “should say.”

I have found that when I simplify group tasks in terms of “threes,” that the group flows more smoothly. For example, three rooms in the house and a list of three items for each of the three categories. I think this provides the task a sense of organization and predictability, thus increasing the group members’ level of trust and safety. This creates a less intimidating environment for each group member to talk about his or her family issues or other issues that may come up.

It is important to invite each group member to ask questions about the assignment. For example, I usually receive questions such as “What do you mean by things a family should say?” You might encourage the adolescents to write down specific things they believe a family should say to one another and then apply this to the other categories as well. For example, you might encourage the adolescents to write down three things they believe a family “should do together.” Or encourage them to write down a list of three things they believe a family “should think about one another.”

In the second component to this task, you instruct each group member to draw another outline of a house with the same three categories: think, say and do. Except this time, you ask the adolescents to write down their beliefs about their “Family Reals.” It is important to have a discussion about what you mean by the term “reals.” Usually, one group member will suggest that “reals” refers to facts or reality.

As the counselor, you can then take the focus of the group and place it on sharing ideas of “what actually goes on” from day to day in their families. Discuss how this is similar to or different from their beliefs about what a family “should” be doing, thinking, or saying.

This invites conversation about specific issues within their families that the adolescents want to address. You can also have a discussion about what “shoulds” are healthy versus what “should” are unhealthy. Finally, you can discuss which “shoulds” are realistic to address, identifying achievable, measurable steps to work toward at home.

As the adolescents listen to the other group members speaking about their family issues, they beginhousedrawing_2 to feel a sense of validation and belongingness. They cultivate a belief that “I am not alone.” As anyone who has studied Irvin Yalom likely knows, these three components are critical to the progress of individuals in group settings.

This task can also be used as a tool in family therapy sessions, serving as a less intimidating way to open the door to communication. It can be used to explore and address each family member’s expectations for others in the family unit.

It can be emotionally difficult for adolescents to talk directly about family issues. But as a counselor, I believe that if you can access adolescents’ creativity and provide a level of predictability, organization and safety, it will open the door to communication between you and your client. This can then be transferred to work with the family as a whole.

I believe this task creates opportunities for individual growth within the therapeutic relationship and opportunities for growth within the family system by reinforcing the difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations, discussion of problem-solving and implementation of communication skills.

 

****

Brandon S. Ballantyne is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. Contact him at ballantynebrandon@yahoo.com.

 

 

Empowering youth victimized by cyberbullying

By Janet Froeschle Hicks February 25, 2015

JF_HicksTechnology has changed the way adolescents bully one another. What once happened during an eight-hour school day now happens online within the home environment. This form of bullying is inescapable and occurs at all hours of the day and night. For victims, the consequences of being targeted by this behavior can range from lowered academic achievement to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and even suicide. When assisting victims of cyberbullying, I find a combination of principles from Rudolf Dreikurs’ mistaken goals, Betty Lou Bettner and Amy Lew’s Crucial C’s, Alfred Adler’s social interest and Steve de Shazer’s solution-focused brief therapy to be helpful.

Dreikurs contended that children mistakenly seek out attention, power, revenge and inadequacy in lieu of healthy personal goals. This might explain some of the behavior associated with cyberbullying. For example, adolescents might bully one another to gain attention or power from others. The victim may then choose to perpetuate the behavior by seeking revenge or choosing a stance of inadequacy and hopelessness.

Fortunately, Bettner and Lew describe four Crucial C’s that I find helpful to positively displace a youth’s mistaken goals. These Crucial C’s consist of feeling connected, feeling courageous, feeling capable and feeling that you count (or are important). In my opinion, shifting the focus from Dreikurs’ mistaken goals of revenge, power, attention and inadequacy to those of courage, capability, connectedness and importance may change the outcome of cyberbullying from victimization to empowerment. This change of focus could alter the cycle of cyberbullying so that victims do not choose revenge and therefore avoid becoming perpetrators themselves. Additionally, victims become focused on improving internal characteristics and, in turn, enhance mental health.

Adler’s social interest may be used to further reinforce these Crucial C’s. Victimized youth who become involved in helping others demonstrate courage as part of initial engagement and experience connectedness as a result of their community involvement. Furthermore, I believe they experience a sense of counting or importance as a result of their contributions, as well as self-evidenced proof of their capabilities. As youth victimized by cyberbullying experience these Crucial C’s firsthand, they become empowered and feel more in control of their feelings and reactions. Self-efficacy and self-esteem begin to replace anxiety, depression and hopelessness.

The theoretical principles mentioned above become even more productive when combined with de Shazer’s solution-focused brief therapy techniques to assist victims of cyberbullying. Complimenting youth when they avoid mistaken goals and demonstrate positive attributes and behaviors builds a foundation on which courage can thrive. Instead of exhibiting retaliatory behaviors, the victim of cyberbullying may exhibit developmentally appropriate coping skills. According to de Shazer, complimenting involves pointing out a person’s strengths so that self-efficacy is instilled and recognized. Exception questions allow victimized youth to uncover times when they responded to difficult times without negative behaviors or emotions. This encourages a focus on what works rather than replicating self-defeating mistaken goals and behaviors. Solution-focused brief therapy feedback allows the counselor to reinforce the client’s strengths at the end of a session, connect ideas by agreeing with the client’s stance and suggest a task for the client to undertake.

In short, a synthesis of Dreikurs’ mistaken goals, Bettner and Lew’s Crucial C’s and Adler’s social interest with de Shazer’s solution-focused brief therapy techniques may empower victims of cyberbullying and improve their mental health. The case of “Elizabeth” that follows illustrates how I specifically combine these elements within a counseling session.

Case study

Elizabeth is a 14-year-old high school freshman. Her teacher referred her to the school counselor because her grades are falling and she is skipping classes. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth reveals that she is spending most of her nonschool time communicating with others through social media. It doesn’t take long for the counselor to discover that another girl is cyberbullying Elizabeth. Elizabeth indicates that her self-esteem has fallen, and she thinks about the social fallout constantly.

Because Elizabeth’s self-esteem and grades have declined, she needs to believe that she is capable of succeeding and that she has value (or that she counts). At the same time, she requires the courage to overcome feelings of inadequacy, thoughts of revenge and a desire for power and attention. The connectedness she already possesses with friends and family may help Elizabeth overcome some of the negative feelings associated with being cyberbullied.

To accomplish this in the counseling session, I use a five-step model:

1) Build rapport

2) Identify and express emotions

3) Integrate feelings and experiences

4) Develop coping strategies

5) Administer feedback

The initial use of solution-focused brief therapy may be effective in building rapport with Elizabeth and changing the overall tone of the session from a focus on the negative to a more positive position. Elizabeth needs to be genuinely complimented so that she minimizes feelings of inadequacy and refocuses on her personal strengths. Asking Elizabeth exception questions helps her to focus on instances when she has been successful. When followed by solution-focused complimenting, this also helps her to reframe the situation and begin to feel empowered.

Next, Elizabeth must identify and express the emotions she feels at home, at school and online. To accomplish this, I ask Elizabeth to describe how she feels in each setting and to associate a color with each feeling. Next, I have her draw a line using a different colored marker for each emotion on three separate pages (school, home and online). Each colored mark is labeled and discussed as a representation of an emotion she feels within that particular setting. I then use solution-focused brief therapy complimenting and exception questioning techniques to demonstrate ways in which Elizabeth is positively handling these emotions. Pointing out times when Elizabeth has handled similar emotions adequately ensures a focus on her strengths and a repetition of the Crucial C’s as demonstrated in her response behaviors.

To integrate feelings and experiences and to expand on ways that Elizabeth is demonstrating the Crucial C’s, I find it helpful to assist her with associating mistaken goals and the Crucial C’s. When shown separate index cards, each containing a written mistaken goal, Elizabeth reads the word and describes a time when she experienced each feeling. For example, Elizabeth might read the word inadequacy and say, “I feel inadequate every time that girl posts something about me.” Or Elizabeth might say, “The word revenge reminds me of the time I got even with her by telling lies about her to others.”

After Elizabeth elaborates and finishes the story, I ask her to tell me which of the Crucial C’s she needed to improve the situation. She then retells the story using the selected Crucial C. For example, Elizabeth might retell the story about revenge with a new focus on courage and connectedness. For instance, “That girl said I was ugly, but instead of making up lies about her, I logged off and texted my best friend. We talked about other things until I forgot all about it. It took courage not to get even, but because I have other friends, I was able to do it.”

Finally, I ask Elizabeth to generate short-term and long-term coping mechanisms. Exception questions help Elizabeth recognize and generate this list of ways she has previously coped in similar situations. These strategies may include creating art, journaling, playing video games, playing with pets, exercising or participating in sports, playing or listening to music, doing guided imagery, visiting with friends, talking to parents and numerous other ideas. To strengthen her long-term coping strategies, I ask Elizabeth to find a social interest activity. Suggested activities include mentoring younger children affected by cyberbullying, creating safety tips for children who surf the Internet, reading empowerment stories to younger children, reading to or visiting elderly adults, volunteering to work in community agencies and countless other possibilities. I then ask Elizabeth to contemplate these ideas, generate a list of both short-term and long-term coping strategies to use during the next week and return to the next session with social interest ideas.

At the end of the session, I incorporate de Shazer’s solution-focused brief therapy feedback technique. I compliment Elizabeth once again so her strengths are evident to her as she leaves the session. For example, I might say, “I recognize the courage it took to share all of this with me this week. I think that shows you have strengths to help you get through this.” Then I might add, “I agree that you need to feel better about yourself. Over the next week, I suggest using the short- and long-term coping strategies you listed as well as finding a project to help others while helping yourself.” To conclude, I ask Elizabeth to report on her success at the next session.

Subsequent sessions focus on self-reported improvement and implementing social interest activities. There is also continued focus on implementing the Crucial C’s in lieu of mistaken goals. Solution-focused brief therapy techniques, including complimenting, exception questions and feedback, are used throughout all sessions to continue reinforcing Elizabeth’s strengths. Finally, I incorporate Internet and online safety and social media trainings for Elizabeth and educate her parents on what Elizabeth is experiencing all day, every day online.

Why include parents?

Parents are included in future sessions for several reasons. First, upon hearing about cyberbullying, many parents fear the Internet and insist that their children avoid all technology. Although this may be an effective short-term solution, I do not believe it helps long term. Eventually, youth find themselves required or tempted to use the Internet for employment, homework or socialization.

As a result, I teach Internet and online safety skills both to parents and youth. These safety tips provide education about privacy and restraint when posting online, decrease fear and allow youth to continue using the Internet provided that their parents are involved in Internet communications. Youth and parents must understand the importance of keeping specific personal information private as it relates to the long-term and worldwide reach of the Internet. Once parents understand how to use social media appropriately, they have an opportunity to become role models for the proper use of technology. Learning strategies to avoid harm while using the Internet may be an important mechanism for personal empowerment for both victims of cyberbullying and their parents.

Another reason counselors should involve parents is related to the mistaken goals discussed earlier. Initially, parents often respond to their child’s victimization with inappropriate feelings of attention, Branding-Box-Cyberbullyrevenge, inadequacy and power. These feelings could result in parental behaviors that perpetuate bullying rather than improving the situation. For example, some parents initially respond to knowledge that their child is being cyberbullied with feelings of revenge. These parents may confront the bully or the bully’s parents and unknowingly increase, rather than decrease, their child’s victimization.

I teach parents to first empathize and communicate with their child. It is important that any parental response to bullying first be discussed with the child. If nurtured, the bond between parent and child may become the greatest protective element for youth who have been cyberbullied.

Conclusion

As Elizabeth experiences the Crucial C’s firsthand through social interest, feels secure in the bond with her parents and focuses on her strengths, she begins to feel empowered rather than victimized. Internet safety tips that illustrate the importance of privacy and restraint when posting online further demonstrate to Elizabeth that she possesses courage and has control over life events. Eventually, Elizabeth is able to focus on her own value rather than on the unhealthy stigma perpetuated by others.

****

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Janet Froeschle Hicks is an associate professor of counselor education and chair of the Educational Psychology & Leadership Department at Texas Tech University. She is both a licensed professional counselor and a certified school counselor in Texas. Contact her at janet.froeschle@ttu.edu.

Charles R. Crews, associate professor of counselor education at Texas Tech University, also contributed to this article.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

****

Case study: The critical need to conduct thorough child assessments

By Gregory K. Moffatt January 29, 2015

“Amanda” sat on the couch across the room from me drawing on a sketch pad. A lovely young girl of 14, she weighed scarcely 100 pounds, and with her cheery and naïve smile, she looked as innocent as they come. If I hadn’t seen attachment disorders many times before, I could easily have been swingsfooled by her carefree air and seemingly open-book candor.

Could this barely pubescent teen really have done what she had been accused of? In my work, I have seen dozens of children who have been accused of animal cruelty, rape and even murder. I knew better than to be fooled by the crafty façade of which children such as this are capable.

 

The case

The call on my cell phone was from a social worker at a foster care agency. As I drove through Atlanta traffic, she explained that two family pets had been horribly violated in a sexual way, with injuries so serious that both dogs had required surgery. The county sheriff’s department was investigating the case, and Amanda was the prime suspect.

Amanda’s background was classic for reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Very early in life, she had been abused both physically and sexually, at which time she was removed from her biological parents’ home and placed in foster care. Early attachment problems were present in her case file, including sexual acting out and some indication of cruelty to animals.

Circumstantial evidence pointed to Amanda as well. She was the caretaker of the pets and was often unsupervised. She was the last person seen with the dogs before their injuries, and her home was in a remote, rural area, making it unlikely that some random perpetrator was at fault.

My heart sank. I felt certain I had another case of a seriously disturbed child, and I made an appointment to do an assessment with Amanda within the next few days.

But things are not always what they seem.

 

The assessment

I easily could have conducted my in-office assessment with Amanda, written my report, submitted my bill and been done with it. But this would not have given me the fullest picture of Amanda and the extenuating circumstances this situation presented.

Prior cases such as Amanda’s that I had worked were clear. Children with RAD often begin displaying disturbing behavior in early childhood, sometimes even in infancy. These behaviors become progressively worse until parents or guardians eventually run out of ideas for coping. By the time they come to my office, these children have often sexually assaulted other children, destroyed property or become incorrigible. None of these things were true for Amanda.

My normal assessment includes, among other things, a number of processes that allow me to observe a child’s sexualization, socialization and attachment. In cases such as this, I also normally conduct a minimum of two different assessment appointments. Children may behave very differently from one day to another, and this practice has helped me avoid many problems over the years.

Amanda passed these assessments with flying colors. I was at a loss because cursory information made her the most likely suspect, but what I saw in my assessment was inconsistent with a young teen who could have so cruelly abused an animal in such a sexual way.

Looking through nearly 10 years of Amanda’s evaluations by psychologists, I found hints of sexualization and cruelty to animals as I had initially been told, but careful reading put this information in a different context. In the child’s early years, there had, indeed, been evidence of sexual acting out as one might see in children with RAD. But interestingly, no one had observed even a single instance of Amanda acting out sexually since she was 6 years old —a span of longer than eight years.

The “cruelty” to animals that existed in her file was, in my opinion, either a very mild form of cruelty or not cruelty at all. Children often hurt animals, sometimes in very serious ways, but my concern is not with the seriousness of the injury. A normal child might seriously injure or even kill a pet by accident. A child with RAD, on the other hand, might torment and torture a pet explicitly for the purpose of causing pain, even if the pet doesn’t end up being seriously injured. These are very different motives. I saw no clear evidence of “cruelty” in the recorded behaviors in Amanda’s file.

But this evidence can be deceptive. Children with RAD often mask their cruel behaviors against both animals and people as seemingly innocent mistakes. I had to be certain I wasn’t missing something with Amanda.

 

Interviews and supporting information:

I needed a fuller picture of Amanda than I could achieve from my office evaluation and the information in her file. One of the many professional hats I wear is that of a homicide profiler. When I am looking at a homicide case, I want to know as much as I can, not only about the homicide but also about the victim, the place, the weapon and the timing of the event. I interview as many people as I can and look at every piece of evidence available to me. In ethnographic research, this is called triangulation (looking at evidence from three or more sources), and Amanda’s case demanded this type of multidirectional examination. I didn’t want to make a decision based simply on my office assessment.

I started my interviews with the foster parents. I needed to know more about Amanda’s history in the nine years they had had guardianship of her, and specifically about the past three or four years. This caring and loving couple had treated Amanda like a daughter since her placement in their home, and they were certain she was innocent. I knew they could be biased in their perceptions, but unless they were trained to know what I was looking for, they couldn’t easily manipulate my impressions.

I was looking for any symptoms of sexualization or cruelty in Amanda’s recent history. RAD doesn’t go away by itself, and it doesn’t improve with time. Instead, the symptoms digress. If Amanda had been cruel to animals early in life, she almost certainly would not stop, and the cruel behavior would escalate. Likewise, if she truly was a child with RAD and she had acted out sexually early on, she would still be engaging in sexual behaviors, and those behaviors also would have escalated. Cruelty moves through a digression — objects to animals and then animals to people. Sexual behaviors digress as well — masturbation, sexual exploration, acting out with consenting others and, finally, acting out on others by force.

Children might easily “practice” their sexual exploitation on animals before moving to humans because animals are easier to control. If Amanda had done something so overtly sexual and cruel to the two family pets, there would have to be symptoms of cruelty and sexualization in her recent history. But my interview with her parents turned up no such allegations in any context, at any time, from any teacher, playmate, sibling, coach or therapist.

I was also interested in Amanda’s ability to connect with other human beings — to show and receive affection. Children with RAD have trouble with both. The comments of the foster parents were consistent with what I had observed in my evaluation. Amanda had no troubles connecting in any context — school, church, athletics or home. She seemed to be a loving child who, although socially awkward, got along well with others and would not intentionally hurt anyone or anything.

I also needed the investigative perspective of the sheriff’s deputy, even though I knew he was already convinced that Amanda was to blame. For good reason, he saw no other logical suspect and had focused all of his investigative resources on her, but he was waiting for my evaluation before proceeding. He provided me with the basic facts of the case. During our first conversation, I derived a clearer picture of how this event could have taken place. The timing of events and other facts confirmed the information I had received from the foster parents. This confirmation was very important because it allowed me to dismiss the possibility that they were attempting to deceive me. It also helped me create a visual image of the event and give further consideration to how Amanda might have injured these dogs without being detected as well as how difficult that might have been for her to do.

Armed with that information, I realized it was at least possible that Amanda was just beginning to exhibit cruel behavior. I needed to know what the dogs experienced, so, with the consent of my client, I called the veterinarian who conducted the surgeries. My main question: Would someone have known she was hurting these animals, or would the animals simply have stood still and allowed the abuse? After all, Amanda was tiny, and these were large, full-grown dogs. Could she have restrained them?

The vet said the dogs would have been howling, struggling and whimpering. “No question,” he said. “The perpetrator would have known these dogs were in serious pain.” This was consistent with the idea of children with RAD intending to do harm, but it left me wondering how Amanda could have controlled the dogs long enough to do this.

I wanted a second opinion. I called a university with a respected veterinary program and talked to the department chair. I sent him photographs of the objects used in the abuse and gave him a summary of the case. His answer to my question? The dogs would have simply stood there and accepted the abuse! The perpetrator may not have known that he or she was causing serious, life-threatening pain, he said. This could be consistent with a child just beginning to act out on animals and didn’t exonerate Amanda.

I now had two completely opposing opinions, so what could I do? I chose to dismiss the “pain” component because I couldn’t be certain which veterinarian to believe. What was uncontested was the fact that both female dogs had large objects inserted into their vaginas. This was clearly a sexual behavior. Most adults couldn’t even find a dog’s vagina. The most obvious rear orifice in a female dog is the anus. This told me that this perpetrator had to deliberately seek out the vagina. Therefore, this was almost certainly not the first time he or she had acted out sexually, which was inconsistent with Amanda’s history. Was it possible for a child to go from simple “show me yours” sexual acting out nine years earlier to vaginally violating not one but two animals at the same time? I hardly saw that as possible.

 

Conclusions

After nearly two weeks of study, interviews, telephone calls and assessments, my final conclusion was that Amanda had nothing to do with the abuse to these animals. I believed that the loving and caring foster family had helped her weather a very difficult start to her life and their interventions had been effective in counteracting the problems of early attachment issues. Amanda measured low normal in IQ, and it seemed inconceivable to me that she could be cunning enough to hide this type of serious dysfunction from everyone in her environment for so long. Although it wasn’t impossible, it was highly improbable.

It was my recommendation that the foster care agency carefully investigate other possible perpetrators among the children in the home and that the sheriff’s department look into other possible suspects from nearby homes as well as hunters or others who might be known to be in this remote area. In my final telephone call with the investigating officer from the sheriff’s department, he asked me the obvious question: “If this child didn’t do it, then who did?” Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest solution is most often the correct one. That just wasn’t the case here. I didn’t want to sound trite, but the person he should investigate really wasn’t my problem, and I said so, although not so bluntly.

Still, I remained tentative in my final evaluation. The risk to others was very high if I was wrong. Therefore, I proposed that Amanda be reevaluated at six months, and I also recommended that she be evaluated by an expert in dissociative identity disorder (DID). The only way I could fathom her possibly committing such acts and yet successfully hiding them from everyone for so long was the remote possibility of DID. I suggested that either I was right and Amanda had nothing to do with this incident, or I was wrong and she was the most clever, sly and dangerous child I had ever seen in my practice.

So, why couldn’t I have simply skipped all the phone calls and gone with my initial evaluation? After all, it appears that I was correct, wasn’t I? Yes, but a possibility certainly existed that I was wrong, and the risk that posed to Amanda, her family, animals in her environment and others was scary. If I had concluded that Amanda was not the perpetrator and was wrong, she would have been free to act out on other animals. In addition, this behavior was so cruel that it would have been a very small step for her to act out on humans, including younger or weaker siblings or playmates. She would have been a risk to everyone she came into contact with.

On the other hand, if I concluded that Amanda did in fact commit this act, she would have been removed from the home. She had lived in this stable, loving home for most of her life, and if my conclusions were wrong, she would have been unfairly uprooted, stigmatized and very difficult to place in the foster care system. The progress she had made might quickly have been undone, and my mistake could have had lifelong consequences for her. Both of these possible outcomes had serious consequences.

 

Follow-up

One year later, my conclusions seem to have been proved correct. The follow-up for DID resulted in no indication of multiple personalities, and the psychologist’s conclusions were the same as mine. Subsequent evaluations also rendered conclusions consistent with my original evaluation, and no other incidents have occurred in the family home or environs. To my knowledge, no other perpetrator has been pursued or apprehended.

This case presents four very important lessons for counselors:

1) Cover every base. Avoid the temptation to lean too heavily on any single piece of information or assessment for conclusions. Assessment processes, interviews, case material and other sources of information can provide triangulation and help confirm or disconfirm information that might be presented in a child’s file.

2) Material in case files may not be objective, and there may be other ways to see the behaviors recorded therein. Read these files with objectivity and caution.

3) Be tentative in your conclusions.

4) Follow up for certainty. If I had been wrong in this case, my recommended follow-up could literally have saved someone’s life.

 

 

****

Gregory K. Moffatt is a professor of counseling and human services at Point University. A licensed professional counselor, he has more than 25 years of clinical experience treating trauma with children. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

The connection between ADHD, speech delays, motor skill delays, sensory processing disorders and sleep issues

By Donna Mac January 16, 2015

To ensure the overall well-being of child clients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), counselors frequently work in combination with other service providers such as speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and sleep specialists. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), many children with ADHD have also ADHD2experienced speech delays, gross motor delays and fine motor delays. In addition, many clients with ADHD showcase sensory issues or have a comorbid sensory processing disorder. Many children with ADHD seemingly also struggle to settle down at night, especially when parents are trying to get them into bed.

What is the connection between ADHD and these other deficits? If we take a look at the structural and chemical makeup of the ADHD brain, we find similarities with these other areas. First, let’s take a look at what an ADHD brain can look like:

  • There can be a smaller frontal lobe with less blood flow to it. This is where the executive functions exist: planning, organization, task initiation, task completion, time estimation, time management, self-regulation, social behavior, short-term memory, working memory, motivation, impulse control, intentionality, purposefulness and the ability to transition effectively. A smaller frontal lobe will lead to emotional immaturity.
  • The overall cerebral volume is usually smaller as well.
  • The neurotransmitter systems of dopamine and norepinephrine are affected. People with ADHD do not produce enough, retain enough or transport these neurotransmitters efficiently through the brain. MRI studies show that this inefficiency can be due to less white matter and more grey matter in the brains of clients with ADHD, which slows transportation. Dopamine is the main “focus neurotransmitter,” heavily associated with the frontal lobe and the executive functions, in addition to being the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It is also heavily linked to the limbic system, which contributes to people with ADHD reacting in a manner that is disproportionate to the event, either positively or negatively. Norepinephrine is involved in focusing on tasks a person considers to be either boring or challenging. In addition, it plays a role in sleep.
  • These clients can have a smaller caudate nucleus with less blood flow to it. The caudate is heavily innervated by dopamine neurons, and it plays an important role in learning, memory, social behavior, voluntary movement and sleep.
  • Electroencephalograms (EEGs) have shown that people with ADHD have more slow waves (theta waves) present than the general population when they are in an “awake state.” The increase in slow waves is especially pronounced during reading and listening tasks, causing people to lose focus, daydream or become drowsy.

All of this simply means that the ADHD brain is less mature and has less activity than a neurotypical brain. It is important to note that a doctor will not order an EEG or MRI either to diagnose or rule out ADHD because these findings are not indicative only of ADHD. In fact, many other issues present this way, including the following.

Speech delays: As stated earlier, the frontal lobe plays a key role in ADHD, but it also plays a role in speech production. There is a significant distinction between those with ADHD who have had speech and language delays versus the general population. It is also important to understand that children with speech and language delays typically have attention spans commiserate to where they are developmentally with language. For instance, if a 7-year-old speaks at a 4-year-old level, the child’s attention span may be that of a 4-year-old. This does not mean the child has ADHD. In addition, the child with a speech delay might find it challenging to communicate needs appropriately, so the child may begin to act out, have tantrums or melt down, much as a child with ADHD might demonstrate. Therefore, if a child has a speech and language delay, a thorough investigation needs to be conducted to determine whether the child’s “ADHD types of struggles” (of both attention and behavior) are related to the language delay, or if, in fact, the child also has ADHD.

If a child does have both ADHD and a speech delay, a physical therapist can make recommendations to the speech therapist concerning how to use specific large-body movements during speech therapy sessions. This will bring blood and glucose to the frontal lobe of the brain. This can be beneficial for speech production and will help the child with ADHD to feel more emotionally regulated.

Another speech issue connected with ADHD is speaking too quickly. This will sound almost as if the child’s speech is slurred. This can be due to the cognitive impulsivity related to ADHD. It can be addressed in a psychotherapy session or a speech session by having the child draw slow, wavy lines as the child speaks.

Motor skill delays: The ADHD brain processes slower than a neurotypical brain because of the transportation difficulties with the neurotransmitters and also because of the increase in slow wave (theta wave) movement. Interestingly enough, researchers find that about half of all children with developmental gross motor coordination disorders actually suffer from varying degrees of ADHD.

Why? Possibly because slower brain processing speed is also manifested in motor skill deficiencies. These motor delays are helped by physical therapists. However, there are other techniques used as well because there are activities that can help speed processing in the brain, such as balance-based activities. Physical therapists and occupational therapists tend to work together to incorporate balance-based activities with both motor skill delays and ADHD because the act of balancing the body actually requires the use of both hemispheres of the brain. In turn, this speeds processing, increases focus and decreases impulsivity.

Other extracurricular activities such as gymnastics, yoga and martial arts involve balance and practicing controlled movement, which are crucial for both ADHD and motor skill deficiencies. Some children with ADHD will have difficulty with fine motor issues such as buttoning clothing or tying shoes, and occupational therapists can help with those concerns as well.ADHD1

Sensory processing disorders: Reward-deficiency syndrome is when the brain is asking for more dopamine. This can be witnessed in the hyperactive response of those with ADHD when they “sensory seek” (spinning around and around, for example) or “novelty seek” (such as hanging over a two-story banister). Dopamine also limits and selects the sensory information that arrives to the frontal lobe, which is one reason that children with ADHD show these sensory issues. In addition, there is a less developed frontal lobe in cases of ADHD. This poses a “double whammy” because both dopamine and frontal lobe issues are involved with sensory concerns as well.

An actual sensory processing disorder occurs when a person has difficulty with the way the brain senses, organizes and utilizes sensory input. This results in unexpected outcomes of movement, emotions, attention and adaptive behaviors. It is as if the brain is using unexpected information on the way in, so, naturally, the unexpected emotions and behaviors come out, which can create further stress and anxiety for the person. Some people with ADHD will have certain sensory concerns without having a full-blown sensory processing disorder, but other people will have both ADHD and a sensory processing disorder. Occupational therapists are skilled at helping children with these issues.

Sleep issues: Children with actual sleep disorders or inconsistent sleep patterns will showcase symptoms similar to ADHD such as irritability, less developed social skills, attention difficulties, memory impairment, lower academic output, increased internalizing and externalizing of problems, not complying with requests and aggression. Because of this particular symptomology, it is crucial to rule out a sleep disorder before diagnosing ADHD.

Can a person have both ADHD and difficulty sleeping? Yes, but not always. A study was published in The New York Times in which researchers focused on children with comorbid diagnoses of ADHD and a sleep disorder. A year after surgeries or treatments for the sleep disorders, only half of the children retained their ADHD diagnosis, meaning that the other half had been misdiagnosed with ADHD; it was only the sleep disorder causing their symptoms.

It’s important to note that “trouble sleeping” was once a symptom qualifier to secure an ADHD diagnosis. The symptom was removed from the DSM in 1987, but the issue can still occur with some people. Remember that the caudate nucleus and norepinephrine are involved in both ADHD and in sleep, which is one reason people may struggle to sleep some nights. Most children with ADHD tend to have difficulty settling down at night and getting into bed because of their hyperactivity and impulsivity, which can spike in the evening hours. But once in bed and calmed down, children with ADHD can usually fall asleep in a time frame that is considered “within normal limits.” Many children with ADHD tend to wake quickly and experience an accelerated start to their day.

 

**** 

Donna Mac has worked professionally with ADHD for 15 years as a teacher, a YMCA director and currently as a licensed clinical professional counselor in a therapeutic day school. She is also the mother of twins diagnosed with ADHD at age 3. She has published a book titled Toddlers & ADHD, available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Balboapress.com and at her website: toddlersandadhd.com.

 

Going wild

By Bethany Bray December 23, 2014

In a matter of months, 16-year-old “David” had gone from being a successful student to spending 12 or more hours per day playing video games. He lost his scholarship to a private school, then dropped Branding-Box-Utah-streamout of school altogether, refusing to leave the couch, even to bathe.

He also stopped communicating with his family. His parents, with whom David had previously been affectionate and close, were afraid he was shutting down.

Diagnosed with depression, David saw four different mental health professionals without making much progress. What finally reached David was wilderness therapy, a unique treatment model that brings clients to natural settings for intensive therapy with a counselor (or other mental health professional) and peer group.

David spent 12 weeks in a program in the high desert plateaus of southern Utah. Although initially resistant to the program, the wilderness setting and peer group eventually prompted him to become social again and work through his struggles. David and his parents exchanged letters while he was away, helping to repair the relationship.

Now back at home, David is again close with his family and flourishing at school. In fact, he was recently elected student body president, says Steven DeMille, an American Counseling Association member who was David’s counselor at Redcliff Ascent, a wilderness therapy program in Utah.

In a post-therapy case study, DeMille, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who is a clinician and director of research at Redcliff Ascent, wrote, “The wilderness provided David with a challenging, straightforward and neutral environment to reflect on old behaviors and try out new options. … David realized that he no longer needed to defeat the structure through disengagement to meet his personal needs. He could meet his needs through following rules and meeting social and family expectations.”

Redcliff Ascent is one of a growing number of programs across the United States that specialize in wilderness therapy. Although models vary from program to program, the majority involve taking groups of clients — most commonly youth or young adults — out into the wilderness for an extended period of time. Participants, including program staff, typically sleep outside, pitch tents, hike and cook food over an open fire.

Therapy occurs in both group and one-on-one sessions. But it also takes place “in the moment,” such as when a client’s anxiety flares when struggling to start a fire or self-doubt kicks in when tasked with leading a hike by compass, says Sean Roberts, a clinical mental health counselor who has worked in wilderness therapy for almost a decade.

“The wilderness is such a powerful intervention because it’s unpredictable,” adds Sabrina Marie Hadeed, an ACA member and licensed professional counselor at Second Nature Cascades, a wilderness therapy program in Oregon.

In one case, a client of Hadeed’s was struggling to set up the tarp for her sleep shelter during an unexpected rainstorm. Frustrated to the point of tears, she gave up and sat down in the rain. The situation served as a chance for Hadeed to talk with the client about coping when circumstances were out of her control and how to ask others for help, both of which were hard for the young woman.

“There’s equal balance in the wilderness of challenge and nurturing, structure and safety, and really learning what’s inside and outside of your control,” says Hadeed, who is finishing her doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Oregon State University. “It’s challenging [for clients] to lean into the discomfort of their difficult feelings rather than turn from them. As long as it’s safe, we’ll encourage them to do that [and they] will increase tolerance for those feelings. In a traditional setting, you meet with a therapist for an hour, even if it’s twice a week. You leave that space and you don’t have to practice what you’ve practiced in the session. In the wilderness, you have to practice all the time — how to give feedback, express frustration, interact with peers.”

Simply put, wilderness therapy is evidence-based therapy — including traditional methods such as Adlerian therapy, cognitive behavior therapy and others — that is done outdoors, say Roberts and DeMille, who presented together on the topic at the 2014 ACA Conference & Expo in Honolulu.

The wilderness therapy model is intensive in many ways, from the group dynamics and 24/7 interaction with program staff to the often breathtaking scenery and natural challenges confronting the clients. Practitioners in the field say wilderness therapy has been proved to have positive outcomes for clients, from better management of behavioral disorders, anxiety, addictions and other struggles to boosts in self-confidence and overall health, including nutrition and sleep patterns.

“The therapy is much more challenging than anything physical,” says Roberts, an ACA member who just began a position as clinical director at Cascade Crest Transitions, a residential program for young adults in Bend, Oregon. “It creates a very powerful milieu. … It’s an incredibly rich and fertile environment for therapy [and] a strengths-based approach to healing.”

Outdoor behavioral health care

DeMille prefers to use the term outdoor behavioral health care rather than wilderness therapy because he says the latter is a nebulous, unregulated term that many nonprofessionals use. He recommends that counselors looking to refer clients search for programs that adhere to the outdoor behavioral health care model, which is a regulated industry with set standards (see sidebar on the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council below).

“There are going to be programs out there that say they’re wilderness therapy, but that’s not necessarily outdoor behavioral health care,” DeMille says.

Outdoor behavioral health care is light years away from the “boot camp” image that many people still associate with wilderness therapy programs, where participants are “broken down” in order to build them back up, Roberts and DeMille say. In fact, outdoor behavioral health care is the opposite, says DeMille.

Regulated programs, including all of the programs for which the counselors interviewed for this article work, have field guides with small groups of clients around the clock. Although the guides are not counselors or mental health professionals, they are given extensive training in wilderness living and serve as adult mentors to clients. Client groups range in size from a few individuals to a dozen people.

Clients meet regularly with a counselor or other licensed mental health professional from the program’s support staff. These counselors work closely with the field guides to get feedback and check in on the client’s progress concerning the treatment plan or goals.

Counselors lead group and individual therapy sessions, work on outreach to families and provide case management. As a clinical director, Roberts says he will also join a group at least once per session for an overnight trip outdoors. He remains on call whenever he isn’t with the group.

“There’s so much more to work with than when I’ve done outpatient work and so many more ways to gather [client] data,” Roberts says.

Clients enter outdoor behavioral health care programs for a number of reasons, including treatment for a variety of mental health diagnoses, behavioral problems, substance abuse issues, problems with school or relationships and trauma recovery. Client stays are usually open-ended; they leave the program only when they are ready, Roberts says. An average stay at DeMille’s program is 70 days, whereas the average at Hadeed’s program is eight to 10 weeks. Programs have rolling admissions, with clients joining and leaving the group intermittently.

Parents of youth clients stay involved with the program and visit their sons or daughters in the wilderness, even sleeping overnight. Hadeed’s program maintains a website for clients’ families where they can post photos and updates and exchange messages while their teenager is out in the wilderness.

Prior to discharge, counselors spend a significant amount of time preparing clients for re-entry into home settings or social situations that previously caused them distress or with which they had difficulties. This process includes working to hone the client’s decision-making and communication skills, relapse-prevention strategies and other coping methods, DeMille says.

In addition, outdoor behavioral health care therapists often work with school staff, counselors and other helping professionals in the client’s hometown to ease the transition. “We do put a lot of energy into figuring out what will set them up for success as they leave,” Roberts says.

The right fit

Outdoor behavioral health care is often effective for clients who are “stuck or deteriorating in treatment” or not responding to traditional therapy methods, according to DeMille. It can also be a good fit for those who drop out of traditional talk therapy or end up hospitalized after a suicide attempt or overdose.

The approach is also effective, says Roberts, with clients who are struggling with a “failure to launch”: young adults who are underperforming in life or career, including failing or being kicked out of school or college.

Roberts, who is finishing his doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Oregon State University, previously worked at Second Nature Entrada, an outdoor behavioral health care program in southern Utah, near Zion National Park. He notes that many of his clients have “been through tons of talk therapy” but struggled to put what they learned into practice. Many have legal records, family systems issues, depression, a history of suicide attempts or struggles with self-medication via substance abuse. These clients are often wrestling with dysfunctional relationships, destructive life patterns or an internalized sense of hopelessness, he says.

“They need an opportunity to unplug from that [life] and course correct — shift the trajectory of where they’re heading … stabilize and gain some tools to increase their confidence,” Roberts says.

Counselors interviewed for this article agreed that outdoor behavioral health care can be a good fit for clients who struggle with:

  • Self-harm
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Depression
  • Emotional, mood or anxiety disorders
  • Developmental disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Trauma
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor school performance
  • Being disruptive, uncooperative or withdrawn
  • Having poor boundary issues with peers (such as crush obsessions or sexting)

Conversely, outdoor behavioral health care is not recommended for clients with:

  • Severe eating disorders
  • Severe forms of autism
  • Learning disabilities that cause them to become oversensitized easily
  • Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia
  • Medical conditions that necessitate being near a hospital (for example, diabetes)

Being comfortable with the outdoors is not a client prerequisite, Hadeed emphasizes. In fact, taking clients out of their comfort zones — and away from their cell phones, friends and favorite TV shows — is often a factor in their healing and progress.

Hadeed says counselors considering whether to refer a client to an outdoor behavioral health care program should first speak with program staff to determine if the client might be a good fit. Conversely, if a counselor is working with a client who has already gone through an outdoor behavioral health care program, the counselor shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to program staff to collaborate, she says.

“Whether it has been one year or five years, the experience will still be with [the wilderness therapist], and they can talk through what works [for that client],” Hadeed says. “That collaborative piece is really important.”

A journey of self-discovery

Gil Hallows, executive director of Legacy Outdoor Adventures in Utah and chair of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, calls the outdoor behavioral health care model a “modern-day rite of passage.” He draws comparisons with the Australian aboriginal “walkabout” and similar rites in other traditional cultures in which adolescents spend time in the wilderness to learn, grow and discover their strengths, returning to society as adults.

Similarly, outdoor behavioral health care is an “individualized journey of self-discovery,” says Hallows, who has worked in the field for two decades.

Hallows and the counselors interviewed for this article agree that numerous factors contribute to the modality’s success with clients, including:

Time away: Outdoor behavioral health care clients spend weeks away from home. In doing so, they are removed from the people, circumstances and other factors that may be contributing to their destructive behaviors and struggles with mental health, including friends, addictive substances and technology.

Hallows refers to this as “the great slowing” because clients have time to think more clearly and reflect on their life away from distractions. “It takes a young person away from everything they’re accustomed to manipulating,” from their own families to video games, he says.

In addition to long hikes, journaling time and other opportunities for self-reflection, some outdoor behavioral health care programs include a “solo” experience, in which clients spend time alone for introspection.

The time away from school cliques, name-brand clothes, cell phones and other familiarities often leads to breakthroughs in self-identity for clients, Hadeed says. In one case, a client discovered that her sense of humor and knack for performing could be a strength and a way to process and communicate her feelings rather than a means of getting her in trouble, as it had in the past.

Time away challenges clients to ask those important questions of identity, Hadeed says. “[It] highlights the strengths, gifts and natural positive qualities they have that they weren’t aware of because of the distractions of daily life, including technology,” she says.

Learning by doing: Part of the outdoor behavioral health care experience for clients is learning to take care of their own equipment, cook meals together and share in other chores such as gathering wood and building fires.

In most cases, clients are learning to do things they’ve never done before. Moments when clients struggle or get frustrated turn into opportunities for in-the-moment encouragement and guidance from program staff.

Roberts says this process leads to empowerment and taps into a host of skills that will carry over into everyday life, including dealing with frustration, sticking with a task, learning to ask for help and engaging in long-term planning.

“It’s almost unavoidable — clients will learn skills, [including] self-confidence, problem-solving, self-care and task accomplishment,” Hallows says. “It’s extremely fulfilling and rewarding to observe the transformation that takes place in a young person when they discover who they are and what they are capable of doing while on a wilderness journey.”

Roberts says he will suggest tasks for clients based on issues they are dealing with in their therapy sessions. He works with the field guides to set up interventions, such as the job of leading a hike by compass, to see how clients respond to specific challenges.

Roberts says he might also suggest that a client who is weighed down by emotional baggage (such as anger or a destructive behavior) take a walk while carrying a rock, a stick or some other object. Afterward, he will talk with the client about the metaphor of carrying something around with us constantly, why that is a challenge and how it can be overcome.

Participants in outdoor behavioral health care often gain new perspective, DeMille says. “Things that you have taken for granted [meals, for example], all of a sudden you have to work for,” he says. “It develops a sense of mastery, competency. They grow in confidence and competencies.”

The model also lends itself to learning what is and isn’t in your control, Hadeed says. “You can’t control the rain, the wind or the weather, but you have control over whether you’re going to put on a jacket or build a fire, and that can be translated to a family setting,” she says. “You can’t control what mood your dad is in when he comes home, but you can control your response to that mood.”

Group dynamic: In most cases, clients in outdoor behavioral health care programs join a group of people they’ve never met before. Over time, the client bonds with group members and staff leaders, Hallows says.

“Sharing a common experience with a group of peers and staff, it lends itself to establishing a tight peer group that holds each other accountable,” he says. “They learn to identify and express emotion, become honest with themselves. And if they’re not, they’ll be called out by their peers.”

Clients work through anxieties and other issues alongside one another, learning as they go. The shared experience with people who are trying to overcome similar struggles is the opposite of the isolation of one-on-one therapy in an office, DeMille points out.

“The group dynamic allows [clients] to work on problems in conjunction with peers in their group,” he says.

The around-the-clock guidance from field staff is also a factor, agree DeMille and Hallows. Clients benefit from seeing adult mentor figures working alongside them, completing hikes, setting up camp

Clinical mental health counselor Sean Roberts provided this photo  of his previous “office” in the wilderness northwest of Enterprise, Utah.

Clinical mental health counselor Sean Roberts provided this photo
of his “office” in the wilderness northwest of Enterprise, Utah.

and sharing meals, chores and other tasks. These field staff work closely with the program counselors to make sure that clients are on the right track and meeting treatment goals.

Hadeed notes that many of her clients come into the program with a misconception of what therapy is or should be. She explains to them that there’s more to therapy than feeling good; therapy presents both challenges and rewards.

“[Therapy] is not always about helping you to feel happy but rather learning to tolerate very normal feelings — worry, fear, anxiety,” she says. “It’s helping you to learn how to tolerate and better express those feelings, ask for help and if you feel like crying, crying. We help them learn that these emotions they are feeling are totally normal, and the more you try and contain them, the more they’re going to come out in other ways.”

The natural setting: Lastly, the natural environment lends itself to lessons of growth and healing. Many outdoor behavioral health care programs take groups into national parks and other breathtaking locales.

“There’s something healing about being outside,” Hallows says. “A good counselor … finds the wilderness setting a huge ally. [For example], counseling a person who has survived a rainy night, kept himself dry and started a fire. Compare [those skills and victories] to his or her life before. … Imagine how impactful one can be as a counselor if you have that experience and setting as an ally. The experience of living outdoors and living in a group of peers, those are the change agents, and if you add counseling to that, you’re leveraging the experience.”

Bringing the outdoors in

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that some of the elements that make outdoor behavioral health care successful can be introduced in more traditional office settings as well. For example, group therapy and hands-on experiential exercises will be more effective at reaching certain clients, Roberts says.

In addition, instead of talking with clients about what happened yesterday, consider working through challenges “in the here and now,” he says. “Give [the client] a task to do. Put together a puzzle [or do] something that is going to create some anxiety, a chance for failure — whatever fits for the client.”

As in outdoor behavioral health care, traditional counselors can also include discussions about overall health, including exercise, nutrition and sleep habits, Roberts says. In addition, both DeMille and Roberts recommend getting outside with clients during counseling sessions when appropriate, such as by taking walks. Furthermore, they say, counselors can prescribe clients to take walks or get outside more on their own.

Parents sometimes turn to outdoor behavioral health care as a last resort, an 11th-hour option after going through multiple therapists or programs, Hadeed says. She’d love to see the opposite: wilderness therapy as a family’s first option.

When most people think of counseling, they picture an office and the iconic leather couch. Instead, what if they pictured a mountainside group therapy session or a counselor chatting with a client as they hiked or went fishing?

“That would be my dream,” Hadeed says.

Wilderness-authors

****

The freedom and light heart I deserve

The following prayer was written by 19-year-old Skye Angelo Rossman, a former client at Second Nature wilderness therapy.

“In my life, I have experienced much love and much hate. I did not enjoy the severity of the extremity. From this day forth, I ask to eliminate the one that doesn’t allow me the freedom and light heart I deserve. I have been through much and will go through much more. It is my hope that I am given the respect I give you in my life. It is with eternal gratitude I pray, amen.”

— Reprinted with permission from Sean Roberts and Skye Angelo Rossman 

****

The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council: Collecting data, carving out a niche

In the early 1990s, what little knowledge most Americans had of wilderness therapy came via news headlines when something went wrong at a program, including, tragically, a handful of fatalities.

The decade had witnessed a marked increase in the number of programs launched, says Gil Hallows, chair of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. However, he says, wilderness therapy programs were operating independently, without a distinct sense of mission or best practices.

With this in mind, representatives from five wilderness therapy programs came together in spring 1996 with the aim of solidifying the field of wilderness therapy. They called themselves the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. In addition to establishing best practices, the group began collecting data to document, verify and maximize the effectiveness of the wilderness therapy treatment model, Hallows says.

“It became clear that organizing would allow us to set some standards [and] allow us to better work together in educating the public on what we do and how we do it. … We wanted to focus on doing this the right way,” says Hallows, who also serves as executive director of Legacy Outdoor Adventures, a wilderness therapy program in Utah.

Most recently, the council partnered with the Association for Experiential Education to develop a set of accreditation standards specific to wilderness therapy programs. The council adopted the accreditation model in early 2014. Member programs must now become accredited within two years of joining the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council.

Close to 20 years after its founding, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council has 17 member programs, plus two others currently going through the application process. The council hosts an annual symposium, held this past year in Park City, Utah, with education sessions and networking opportunities for professionals in the field.

More than 15 years’ worth of the group’s research — from statistics on program safety to client substance abuse pre- and post-participation — is available to the public through the council’s website (see OBHcouncil.com).

To become a member of the council, a program must collect data regularly for the council’s research mission. Members typically record data points about clients’ mental and overall health at intake, discharge and six months after being discharged from a program, Hallows says.

Statistics on the effectiveness of wilderness therapy, especially its cost effectiveness, are fueling the council’s campaign to improve insurance coverage of outdoor behavioral health care. Historically, insurance companies have been reluctant to reimburse clients for costs incurred for participation in wilderness therapy programs, Hallows says.

The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council is reaching out to insurance companies and providing data on wilderness therapy’s effectiveness in hopes of changing that scenario. The group also provides resources to help guide clients’ families through the appeal of a claim denial, Hallows says.

“Part of this campaign is to make outdoor behavioral health care more available to average families,” he says.

****

Related reading

  • Sabrina Marie Hadeed’s piece “Girls daring greatly,” a first-person perspective of how wilderness therapy can reach and help adolescent girls
  • Wilderness therapy: The question of affordability,” a look at the cost of wilderness therapy programs and the steps the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council is taking to make them more affordable for average families

****

Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

****