Tag Archives: wilderness therapy

Girls daring greatly

By Sabrina Marie Hadeed November 24, 2014

When discussing the idea of girls in the wilderness, the topic of vulnerability comes up often. Typically it is in the context of how girls are vulnerable in fragile ways that we should protect or shelter. However, having been a teenage girl myself, and now having worked as an adolescent WildernessGirlsmental health therapist for nine years, I can confidently say that vulnerability among girls in the wilderness has more to do with courage and resilience than anything else.

Brené Brown is one of the world’s leading researchers on the study of vulnerability and shame. In her most recent book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, she highlights relevant themes such as learning to embrace imperfections, letting the people we love struggle and other elements of healing our shame. The book’s title was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech (1910), in which he said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I have witnessed countless examples of girls daring greatly in the arena of my adolescent therapeutic wilderness group in Bend, Oregon. As we drive out to our remote wilderness use area, my thoughts are filled with a review of the clinical conceptualization of each client. I systematically picture the face of each girl and review the presenting concerns, clinical assessment and other data relevant to the case. Anxiety, depression, history of self-harm and suicide attempts, defiance, drug and alcohol abuse, trauma, history of being bullied or bullying, and tumultuous family relationships are among the most common clinical features represented in my group at any given time. I also consider the strengths and innate potential that each girl possesses, wondering what has stood in the way of the maturity and expression of those strengths. My mind then wanders to the awe of watching nature (the wilderness) help each girl peel back the layers of unnatural overstimulation resulting from daily technology immersion and the false faces of social media relationships.

My teenage years took place before the era of Facebook and cell phones. I am astounded by the resilience that today’s adolescents must possess in order to survive the fast-paced, often cruel and technologically advanced world in which we now live. Many of the adolescent girls with whom I work have spent precious little time connecting with nature or disconnecting from their phones, televisions, computers and social media sites. Few have ever slept under the stars or stopped to listen to the wind whispering through the trees. In fact, most of the teenage girls I work with initially find it very uncomfortable to be in the remote wilderness. I commonly hear “I’m not good at being alone with my thoughts!” or “I can’t possibly be expected to sit and reflect; it’s too hard for me!” and “I need counseling, not sitting in the middle of nowhere!” These protests are understandable because these girls never learned how to sit by themselves and connect with nature. Instead they are used to being surrounded by any number of distractions that encourage disconnection from nature and the here and now.

One day, I arrived after my long reflective drive to the remote site where my group was camping. With my trusty, nature-loving golden retriever by my side, I exited our burly off-road vehicle, took a deep breath of the warm Cascades air and hiked up the barely visible dirt trail. Taking a final step over the gnarled volcanic rock, I could see the group of girls in the distance. Instantly, I was struck not by what I saw but by what I heard.

My ears and heart were suddenly being serenaded by six harmonizing girls. They were standing in a circle, all eyes focused on the group-appointed 17-year-old pseudo choir director. Their bodies stood like gracefully poised trees as they gently sang out. But they weren’t singing a song by any artist WildernessHikecommonly attached to their generation, such as Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus. Instead they were harmonizing so beautifully to “Rose Red,” a ballad from the Elizabethan era.

There was a disorienting two-second lapse of time where I had to remind myself where I was standing. For one lovely moment that day, we were no longer in the Oregon desert in a therapeutic wilderness program defined by mental health struggles and adolescent angst. Instead we were transported to a magical place where teenage girls put their pain aside to learn a song together, letting their voices sing out and dance along the juniper tree-spotted hills of the Cascades.

It was beyond any brilliant counseling technique I could have applied. The moment was made possible through the influence of a connection to nature, a disconnection from the distractions of cell phones and social media sites, a positive group culture, the ongoing collaborative support of the entire treatment team and, of course, the courage of six teenage girls. The girls had been able to develop emotional safety within the group and increase their self-confidence, which gave them the courage to “dare greatly.” I believe the power of vulnerability and daring greatly can be linked to reconnecting with one’s self through nature and disconnecting from the conveniences of our technologically smothered first-world lives.

In 2011, Brené Brown wrote, “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

Among the circle of singing girls there were no perfect vocalists, no dominating ego, no cyberbullies, no gestures of self-harm, no competing debutants. There was only honest harmonized courage and the presence of emerging self-acceptance and genuine connection. Moments like that remind me how the influence of nature can transform and why the power of vulnerability is born from the courage to dare greatly.



Sabrina Marie Hadeed is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and approved clinical supervisor. She is a primary therapist at Second Nature Cascades and a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University. Contact her at sabrinamariecounseling@gmail.com.



Wilderness therapy: A closer look

See the January issue of Counseling Today for an in-depth feature article on wilderness therapy (to which Hadeed contributed).

How green is my valley – and mind

Jeffrey G. Borchers and G.A. Bradshaw December 14, 2008

When only a few months old, Joey was taken from his birth parents. For the next 16 years, he was moved from house to house, physically abused and isolated in the dark for days on end. Today, in a stable home, his overall health has improved, but he will suddenly fly into a rage, scream and frantically tear at his chest until it bleeds. Because various therapeutic approaches have failed, psychopharmaceuticals are now prescribed.

Matty also grew up in a physically abusive home. Like his father, he joined the military and subsequently made a seven-month tour on the USS Eisenhower. Upon returning to civilian life, he developed a drug and alcohol dependence and was jailed for assault. He enrolled in a rehabilitation program for veterans but continued to have aggressive outbursts and depression and was unable to establish positive relationships. He was diagnosed with 70 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and prescribed a regimen of nine psychopharmaceutical agents.

Two case studies with similar etiologies and therapeutic challenges. Two individuals struggling with recovery from violence. Little did they know they would end up together and change each other’s lives. As Matty recounts, “Joey didn’t just change my life, he saved my life.” By walking into each other’s worlds, the two have embarked on a whole new journey together. Or, to be more precise, Matty walked into Joey’s life; Joey flew into Matty’s.

Yes, “flew” is right. Joey is an 18-year-old parrot and Matty a 35-year-old man. They are part of a new program that partners veterans and birds to help each other transition from uncertain, violent pasts to futures with hope and meaning. There is more here than meets the eye, however. This isn’t just a new therapeutic fad. Joey and Matty are part of a radical new paradigm that is taking hold in counseling.

The brainchild of clinical psychologist Lorin Lindner, director of the Association for Parrot C.A.R.E., the parrot-veteran program is located at the Serenity Park Sanctuary on the grounds of the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital. More than 50 parrots like Joey have been rescued and brought to the sanctuary. They tend to and are tended by military veterans who are also in need of a home and quality care. Administrators describe the program as unconventional but also say that it works. After two months, Matty was no longer taking medications. Instead, he was prescribed “parrot therapy.” Joey also experienced relief from symptoms of PTSD, a condition that is now being identified in many animal species.

SerenityParkis an example of the greening of psychotherapy — known as ecotherapy — that is bringing counselors and their clients back to nature.

Bringing “eco” back into the equation

Ecotherapy is based on principles of ecopsychology, the theory that human mental health and well-being are connected to the quality of our relationships with nature. Despite its novelty today, “going green” for cures has a long heritage. Ecotherapy’s origins are found in the traditions of American Indian and other indigenous peoples, where nature is central. Even Erik Erickson, Sigmund Freud’s own student, sent his patients to alpine landscapes as part of their treatment. In what may be the first formal example of American ecotherapy, the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth was established in 1886 in Canaan, N.Y., to serve troubled children and their families. In those years, residents of mental institutions worked in the gardens to provide food while simultaneously benefiting from being close with nature. Eventually, however, nature’s place in psyche and society was pushed aside by urbanization. Still, there are places where nature never left therapy.

Ecotherapy programs are well established in many parts of Europe. Holland boasts more than 500 “care farms” — places where clinicians send their clients to agricultural settings as part of their prescribed therapy. In the United Kingdom, the National Care Farming Initiative facilitates WildernessHikecollaboration among scores of care farms that provide nature-oriented approaches to treat a variety of mental conditions. But ecotherapy entails more than recreating in nature. It is grounded in the same principles as other psychotherapies but with some significant distinctions.

A decade or more ago, the union of “eco” and psyche remained largely in the realm of philosophy with little theory connecting it with extant psychology and scant attention paid to formal clinical applications. Now a literature has coalesced resonant with key principles of modern psychotherapy. Joey and Matty’s story provides a vivid example of how core concepts of attachment theory from conventional psychology also operate in ecotherapy.

Attachment theory says relationships, along with genes, shape how we think, feel and act. Evolutionary psychology includes our early interactions with nature as part of this relational hard-wiring, or what biologist E.O. Wilson terms biophilia. Knowing how to relate with the ecological surround was essential. Our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, and our not-so-distant predecessors had to rely on their knowledge of flora and fauna in the ancestral “hood” to survive. However, modern life involves very few encounters with nature. Such acquired indifference comes with a price.

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods asserts that children suffer from widespread “nature deficit disorder” — a profound alienation from nature — and blames lifestyles that take us far away from the restorative rhythms of forest and stream.Ecotherapist Linda Buzzell, founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy and coeditor of Ecotherapy, concurs: “Many current epidemic mental health afflictions such as anxiety, depression and family dysfunction may be directly attributable to unhealthy and unnatural conditions of modern industrial society and not merely the result of chemical imbalance or childhood trauma.” Ecotherapy’s call to reawaken evolutionary inclinations to bond with creatures great and small provides a “powerful healing methodology” and explains why Joey and Matty’s paired treatment has proved so successful. But there is another reason.

Of common minds

For decades, neuroscience has known that brain structures and mechanisms governing affect, empathy, judgment, memory, culture and cognition are found across species. Now neuroimaging confirms theory and observation — all vertebrates, including animals as diverse as dolphins, cats, chimpanzees and parrots, share socio-affective patterns and homologous neural networks responsible for psychological disorders and suffering. This means that Joey and Matty share a common psychobiology and a mutual vulnerability to stress. In other words, trauma affects both man and parrot.

Trauma diagnosis is unsurprisingly similar across species. PTSD has been diagnosed in free-ranging African elephants that, like their human compatriots, suffer from the wages of war and genocide. The pit bulls recovered in the infamous Michael Vick case that were severely abused and forced to fight exhibit symptoms akin to soldiers in recovery from battle. Chimpanzees recovering from brutal lives as biomedical subjects face the profound task described by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl as “meaning making.” What they and Joey the parrot have experienced — social isolation, shock trauma, prolonged incarceration — is analogous to what human political prisoners endure. Not surprisingly, both parrots and people have been diagnosed with what traumatologist Judith Herman calls “Complex PTSD.”

What holds for symptoms, holds for treatment. Parrot therapy conforms to what we know about psychotherapeutic approaches used to facilitate trauma recovery. For example, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay notes that in addition to contending with adaptations acquired to survive battles that carry over into civilian life, many veterans must deal with the loss of their capacity for social trust. Parrot-veteran therapy provides the medium for rebuilding this capacity in both species.

As Matty finds out what makes Joey tick — what Joey likes to eat, what he likes to do, how he expresses himself when he is happy, scared or aggressive — and, in parallel, as Joey finds out who Matty is, the two are establishing a therapeutic alliance. Bit by bit, each learns how to modulate his own behavior through the processes of feeding, communicating and grooming to match his partner. “You have to be real with a parrot,” Matty says. “And when you aren’t, the feedback is immediate. They can pick up every little emotion and feeling. Being with Joey, I had to be real. I had to be honest. And I could do it because I trusted him. I knew that no matter what, he would always be there to always try and be my friend.” Joey offers unconditionality, a quality often sought but, sadly, not so easily found in the company of humans.

Similar to a human therapist, Joey offers Matty an opportunity to try out new ways of relating in “session.” The results are transformative. “After spending time with Joey, and getting to understand what he’s feeling, I became a completely different person,” Matty told his human therapist. “I changed the way I was with people and how I interacted with them. Now, instead of seeing someone as an immediate threat, I try and see who that person really is and why they are doing and saying what they do. I am a lot more open to other people.”

Nature as social facilitator is a theme encountered in other ecotherapeutic settings. Numerous programs include wilderness or adventure therapies as core interventions. Horticultural therapy’s (HT) long history stems directly from the institutional farms of the 19th and 20th centuries. As practiced at a retirement facility near Portland, Ore., HT helps revitalize human-to-human bonds among elderly residents while it sharpens cognitive skills. “Something as simple as planting seeds and picking flowers can reap the most amazing bounties,” says Melissa Richmond, the facility’s HT specialist. “Gardening simply builds community.”

Going green not always rosy

Psychology’s greening raises some unique ethical challenges involving the natural world. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University, has extensively researched dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT), part of the broader project of animal-assisted therapies (AAT) in which animals serve as therapeutic mediums. Marino and others warn that such programs are far from benign. “These programs not only constitute an increasing threat to wild dolphins who are often captured for these programs, but there is no solid evidence that DAT is effective as advertised,” she says.

Complications can develop when facilitators of animal therapy aren’t thoroughly educated in their responsibilities to care for their animal therapists. Evidence indicates that animal therapists are, like human therapists, vulnerable to compassion fatigue and other hazards of the trade. Because animals do not sign consent forms, AAT can turn into exploitation or even abuse. This has happened in the DAT industry as well as many other AAT programs that use horses, elephants, dogs, cats and others.

The parrot-veteran program differs from most AAT settings because its first and primary goal is to support animal well-being. Human healing and transformation are not ignored, but they take place in the process of being in service to animals. Eileen McCarthy, director and founder of the Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services, has developed what is essentially an emerging parrot counseling center, where volunteers, trained in principles of trauma recovery, work in service for the feathered residents.

A kinder, gentler green world

Ethical concern for nature’s well-being lies at the core of ecotherapy, but it also reflects broader social forces of which the new green awareness is a part. This is perhaps best illustrated by one of the oldest ecopsychological institutions, The Animas Institute in Durango, Colo., founded by Bill Plotkin. The organization’s teaching is “nature-based soul-initiation, whose central goal is the descent to soul for the purpose of maturing or deepening the ego, rather than healing it.” Echoing Louv, Plotkin says, “My clients’ discontents are often rooted in an unmet longing for wildness, mystery and a meaningful engagement” — an engagement that seeks to embrace “radical cultural change.”

As an agent of cultural change, ecopsychology extends therapy beyond the personal to the deeper “whys” and “hows” of existence, thereby embodying an implicit critique. Craig Chalquist, ecopsychologist and coeditor with Buzzell, argues that clients are tackling questions “core to postmodern survival such as ‘What does it mean that I live in the middle of the greatest environmental crisis in history? What can I do about it?’” According to Chalquist, ecopsychology offers a way to “heal the cultural split between self and world that underlies the environmental crisis … and bring psychology into the environmental crisis discussion, diagnose the crisis and offer sustainable alternatives.”

Obviously, there is more than meets the eye when “eco” is added to psychology, with much still to be explored and studied with caution. But with reports on global warming and the ever-increasing list of species extinctions, it is clear that the welfare of nature and human psyche are interdependent. Species reconciliation is long overdue and the need for healing even more urgent. A 2007 Department of Veterans Affairs survey conservatively estimated that nearly 14,000 veterans in the Greater Los Angeles area were homeless. Nationwide, the National Alliance to End Homelessness collated figures showing that between 23 percent and 40 percent of homeless adults are veterans. And as Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans return, numbers are expected to rise significantly. As for parrots, there is a nearly $1 billion industry that continues to drain wild populations, pushing the demand for bird rescue and sanctuary.

In the words of Buzzell, ecotherapy emerges as “the reinvention of psychotherapy as if nature mattered.” Clearly, a minding of things green brings a greening of minds. Nature and human nature are indelibly linked in a single web of life that is as much mental as physical. The greening of psychology represents a radically different perspective on healing humans and other animals. Counselors everywhere are challenged to become part of this larger project and explore new methods of diagnosis and treatment that include healing of the natural world from which we have become so estranged, thus embarking on the creation of a kinder, gentler green world.



Jeffrey G. Borchers, a member of the American Counseling Association, provides nature-based counseling as part of his private practice (commensa.org). He is director of People Programs at Sanctuary One, a nonprofit animal sanctuary, and cofounder of the Oregon Coalition for Consumer Mental Health Protection and Choice (oregonmentalhealth.info). Contact him at borchers@commensa.org.

G.A. Bradshaw is founder and executive director of The Kerulos Center (kerulos.org), a nonprofit organization that studies transpecies psychology and trauma recovery, and cofounder of the International Association for Animal Trauma Recovery. Contact her at bradshaw@kerulos.org.

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