There is something transformative about immersing yourself in a process of creation, pushing yourself to try new things, and engaging in recovery with your whole self, mind, body, and spirit. Through these experiences, you open up new avenues for emotional processing, expression, and discovery that expand the limits of what you thought was possible. They change you. They introduce you to the authentic “you.”
While mental health treatment has traditionally happened within the confines of the therapy room or the “box” (four walls, floor, and ceiling as I call it), the mental health and addiction treatment world is now increasingly recognizing the transformative power of creative and experiential therapy outside the “box.” (Kvarnstrom,2017).
Don’t get me wrong, wellness can absolutely occur within the confines of the office environment. But the office has its limits, in particular, with the teenage and young adult population. I have increasing found that teens and young adults would rather meet at a location of their own choice, a place where they feel more comfortable, often times simply outside in nature. Not only do they want to meet in non-traditional environments, they want to engage in some activity while having clinical sessions.
On an individual level, I have worked extensively with those fresh out of wilderness treatment facilities, usually in the 15 to 20-year-old age range. They typically are in the wilderness for months at a time, and the standard discharge plan is PHP or IOP therapy. This simply doesn’t work for this population. How can we expect success of the wilderness, where participants may live in tents and remote areas for months, to continue in an office setting? The experiential aspect, the foundation of wilderness treatment, is ignored only to be shuffled into the insurance-driven/medical model world of treatment, that the “box” simply can’t offer. Sadly, this mis-match in treatment can yield poor outcomes.
Over the past few years, I have been offering experiential/adventure-based therapy to my patients. This approach offers an opportunity to bridge the gap—meeting with patients for a hiking, rock climbing, fishing, disc golf or an interest or location they choose while having clinical treatment. Sometimes the location is the local Starbucks, library, a 12-step meeting or Staples, where we get organizational tools, such as calendars, folders, etc., that are essential for developing life skills. The outcomes have been profound. Problem sets that would typically take a dozen office visits can be achieved in much fewer out-of-office visits with experiential treatment. With this form of treatment, not only do we talk about actions to recover, we actually do them. We don’t just talk the talk; we demonstrate through actions and activities.
Several months ago, I started an Adventure Therapy group for young men in recovery from substance use disorders, mental health, or a combination of both. Participants have all been in treatment for some time and made significant headway in their respective journeys to wellness. Outcomes from regular office visits paired with twice-monthly adventure therapy groups has truly blown me away. I have seen significant growth of the group and individuals. I regularly see young guys take on new, difficult, sometimes fear-provoking activities while simultaneously sharing their progress and shortcomings. They hold one another accountable and share what has worked for them personally.
To illustrate the change that can occur, here is an example. A young man in his twenties who was anxious, fearful of heights, and had trust issues went rock climbing for his first time. He was the most apprehensive group member for this activity. His prior individual therapy session was dedicated to getting him to attend this group activity. When the group was asked, “Who’s up?” his hand shot up first. Amazed, I went with it, tied him in, and he was off climbing. About three quarters of the way to the top, his fearful brain engaged and he asked to be lowered out. Therapeutically speaking, he faced his fear head on, gave it all he had, articulated when he had enough, and trusted me to lower him back to the ground.
A few months later, this same young man is now climbing on a regular basis. He is certified to belay, has purchased his own climbing equipment, is no longer afraid of heights, and able to take healthy risks. He has a new passion, sport and community of like-minded recreational people. In his personal world, he is much less afraid of people, engaging with people in his life on an intimate level and managing his illness instead of his illness managing him. The change has been profound.
This is just one of many examples I have seen with experiential therapy. If you or someone you know has tried traditional “box” therapy and not obtained the desired results, I highly suggest trying clinical treatment paired with adventure/experiential therapy. Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting words into action, moving from theory to practice and having the correct “experience” or “environment” to get the change you desire.
For more information about experiential therapy, contact Josh Glawe, L.C.S.W., at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kvarstom, E. (2017, July 19). The Healing Power of Creative and Experiential Therapies: An Interview with Kayla Karesh. Retreived from https://www.brightquest.com.