A reoccurring theme during our latest boys program was learning the ability to control our thoughts and feelings. As difficult or simple as it may seem, it first requires a great sense of awareness of ourselves, and secondly the belief that we as human beings are able to choose and therefore to control our thoughts and feelings throughout our day-to-day lives.
This concept in words and on paper is relatively new to me, however is consistent with mindfulness theories and ‘live in the moment’ ways of life. It also reiterates many key aspects of the late David Foster Wallace’s speech ‘This is Water’ – which has an underlying theme of becoming self-aware and more obviously using choice to decide what to make of our surrounding circumstances.
"There are two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “morning boys, how’s the water?”And the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about”
I don’t believe this comes naturally, however I do believe we can learn -by constantly allowing ourselves ‘room to breathe’, to reflect on what is happening, both external to our bodies; that is, our environment and internally; emotionally and physically. Subsequent to this, we can perhaps enable ourselves to be aware of thought patterns that are often the beginning of the creation of emotions that in turn affect our behaviour, and how we think and feel about both ourselves, and the world around us.
If we can disrupt negative thought patterns (but first become aware of them) we can begin to become self aware and simply ‘let go’ of unimportant, miniscule characteristics that tend to make up the daily grind.
Relating this back to our latest boys program, we noticed that often when hiking in silence or when left alone, the boys can become angry, or subdued. On approach, one boy exclaimed very simply, that everyone was ‘pissing him off’. With curiosity, we asked him who he was referring to. The boy spoke about lots of people in his life back at home and all of the injustices he’s endured. There’s no denying he’s been subjected to traumatic experiences and his story is quite tremendous. And whilst alone and with his own thoughts, they manifested into a downward spiral to the point where he became angry or upset, which then affected his sense of self, and attitude and behaviour.
As social workers and therapists we are trained to talk to people in a way that allows them to bring their mind back to the present. We had a conversation with this young boy and after self regulating himself back to a state of relative calmness, we chatted about the importance of catching our thoughts as they spiral and affect our emotions. We spoke about how this can make us feel physically, and how these thoughts can affect our behaviour. From that time on this boy showed us all the different ways he can control any negative thoughts, through distraction, through communication and through physical activity.
Trip Leader with True North Expeditions
In the lead up to True North Expeditions’ July Boys Expedition I had met each of the students attending and was excited to see their interactions despite considerable differences. I was also a strong believer in Adventure Therapy from what I had read and was very interested to see its application.
The first four days of the trip were beautifully pleasant with the students all showing genuine enthusiasm about learning new skills such as the ability to make a fire without the use of matches and the construction of their own shelters to sleep under. The group would walk for much of the day with breaks for lunch or a drink but to also engage with their journals and curriculum before arriving at the night’s camp in the mid afternoon. The novelty of seeing kangaroos gliding through the bush or up a mountain, emu’s running madly and the chorus of local bird life was not lost on the staff or participants.
Whilst the physical aspect of the trip could be trying for the students at times, the sheer beauty of the location and the teamwork within the group proved a successful combination for applying therapeutic skills. These elements helped the students speak openly and break down the barriers of communication that seem so prevalent in everyday settings. My belief in the application of Adventure Therapy was growing each day with the children’s willingness to participate as group members and their understanding of individual responsibilities.
This would be tested on day 4 when after arriving at camp we were informed of ‘impending snow fall and extreme cold’. As night fell we found ourselves huddled around a fire for warmth. Our fearless leader returned to base camp to collect the car and return us to the safety of a gas oven and reverse cycle air conditioning. The next two days were spent at base doing group activities, going on day hikes and continuing to build relationships within the group. Once we believed the worst of the cold had passed we returned to the bush and immediately relished being back in the wilderness. This was short lived however, with the group facing the elements and sleeping outside on the coldest August night in over 120 years...-6 degrees!! This could have proven disastrous for the mindset of the group but instead proved resolute with the tough conditions further unifying the resilience our group.
After this record breaking night the temperatures became increasingly warmer and the students were embracing their time in a foreign environment. Towards the end of the walking and camping part of the trip it was amazing to see the students offering each other help unconditionally and understanding the importance of community participation. The trip to date was building up to ‘SOLO’, a part of the trip that, before witnessing, I was sceptical as to its success.
Each student was allocated their own camp for approximately 30hrs. Although no camp was more than 30 metres from the worker’s camp, each student was left to prepare their own fire and shelter and reflect on their trip so far and how life might be on their return to home. This was a very powerful experience to witness and each student seemed to take out an insight they felt could help them in their future lives.
The remaining two days were spent in a beautiful cabin on the property enjoying warm showers, real beds, digital television and the satisfaction that each person had achieved something that they had never done before.
As I near the end of my Social Work degree and begin life as a professional, I could not help but feel the satisfaction of helping these students achieve such a demanding and satisfying endeavour. This experience reinforces my belief in Adventure Therapy and the work done with children in natural settings but also the facilitation of True North Expeditions and the power that ‘perceived risk’ engages children, fosters strong relationships and helps deliver positive outcomes for its participants.
Andrew Bach, Social Work Student
Susie attended our camp in September of last year. Her school counsellor had grown more concerned about Susie’s self-harming behaviours, the older boyfriend who lured her away from school and the relentless power struggle at home. She was unsure of what to expect as this was her first extended period away from home. Regularly, she broke down into tears when she thought of home and struggled to keep up with the rest of the group. The staff team worked with Susie daily and helped dissect the letters written back and forth between her and her parents. Susie told them about her enjoyment of poetry, reading and listening to music. She drew regularly in her journal and wrote extensively when given her daily journal topic.
Toward the end of the first week, the team gave Susie a therapeutic Scavenger Hunt. Listed in her journal, the team wrote thirty tasks for Susie to complete before the end of the program. Many of these were various journaling topics such as writing song lyrics about her journey out of depression, writing about where she sees herself in five years and discussing her feelings each day without judgement or defensiveness. Tasks also included helping other members of the group in ways they could not find out and to report back to staff how this felt. Susie’s conduct changed over the next week, as she became a vocal leader with the team. She felt hopeful and confident about her abilities and shared her poems of hope with the group.
Susie’s mother wrote a letter to Susie’s trip leaders mentioning that “worlds had shifted” since she returned home. Susie continued journaling each day and was given time during the school day to create positive goals for herself. She wrote about her experience in the school newsletter and continues to have improved performance in school. She is no longer self-harming and has been using positive coping skills to deal with difficult emotions.
Susie’s experience with us was a tale of two very different weeks. Our team was patient in building a strong relationship with Susie before providing her with specific tasks to help her build insight. In recognising her literacy abilities, we were able to use her unique character strengths to our advantage.
Our camps are centred around a collaborative approach that assesses each child based on their individual story and key strengths. In having this strong relationship with Susie, she was able to return home to rebuild stronger relationships with her family and begin to help others.
Susie is now finishing Year 12 and hopes to become a psychologist or social worker in order to help others that are struggling with self-harming behaviours. She continues to work with our team monthly to make sure that she is staying on a strong and positive path.
Why we decided to send our son on True North Expeditions and how has he progressed since:
My younger son, Chris, had be been dealing with anger issues for sometime. I remember him furious when he was younger because he struggled in school and could not compete with his older brother. By the time he was a teenager he was punching holes in walls and became verbally abusive. We tried a number of different types of family therapy and psychiatrists, but nothing seemed to help.
Chris got involved in drug taking, became dependent on marijuana and eventually the whole situation became so unmanageable that we could really only communicate in a public place.
Chris was struggling in school and not holding onto his work experiences. We were unsure what to do and we turned to True North Expeditions. We offered Chris the opportunity and he spoke to Will and decided to go. He loved the Flinders Ranges and the outdoor experiences. He did without drugs for 2 weeks and this added to his confidence. But best of all, he was able to relate to Will and the therapeutic team. I am so encouraged that Chris is continuing to see Will on a regular basis as up until now all psychologists and psychiatrists were “bullshit”.
When Chris returned from the expedition he started in a new sales job and is focussing on his return to school. He has been recognised as one of the top sales people in the country for the last month. This work exposes him to constant rejection, which is trying for anybody, let alone a person who has challenges managing anger. With Will’s support, Chris is learning new ways of dealing with anger, participating in goal setting and slowly developing skills towards making his life more manageable.
I have no doubt that the True North expedition has been a significant turning point in Chris life.
The Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (JTSP), compiled and edited by the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), publishes articles relating to adolescent and child treatment throughout the world. I've had a close relationship with this association as my home in Washington DC is just a few hundred meters from their office. Just about every wilderness adventure therapy program in the states is a member of their association and their journal has been progressive in publishing our industry's latest research.
I came across a new article this year called "Poison Apples, Big Bad Wolves and other 'Happy Ending' Spoilers: Overcoming the barriers to enduring change following youth residential treatment." The most fantastic aspect of finding this article is that I read it the morning prior to attending a meeting with a school regarding re-entry for one of our previous clients. We were planning follow up support as the student had a positive experience on our most recent expedition.
In running Potomac Pathways, our followup and intensive outpatient (IOP) program for teens coming home from residential treatment back in Washington, we frequently ran into issues relating to the question, "What creates long term success?" Wilderness therapy works because young people participate it an incredibly engaging experience with staff that build a genuine therapeutic alliance. However, most research has shown that students show a slight relapse in progress within their first six months coming home prior to turning it around and continuing on a positive path for the next year and a half.
At Potomac Pathways, we successfully answered this aftercare plague by continuing to run adventure therapy outings and provide weekly group, individual and family therapy services with those that have already completed their wilderness therapy program. Young people demonstrating positive change were also able to work with us as mentors to support those students just returning home.
With True North Expeditions, we have applied the same model to families that wish to take part. We have seen that our participants value the support provided by our team and continue to sit side by side with their child on a positive path. I've said to many of you that I've met over this first year with True North Expeditions that wilderness therapy is the one of the best avenues for helping teens but that is not where the magic happens. Its the services and support networks we can apply when the teen is back home with family.
In the article referenced above, they have outlined what predicts success in a program (reported by students, staff and parents) and what were the "major external factors" that created real barriers to program success.
What Predicts Program Success
1) Staff Relationships
2) Accountability & Structure
4) Nutrition & Exercise
True North Expeditions' model has answered all of above through using evidence-based research in operating wilderness therapy expeditions for teenagers. Our staff are engaging, our Expedition Curriculum builds our students' self-esteem and our organic, whole foods diet paired with daily routines and physical exercise help in achieving a higher quality of life. However as mentioned above, the real test occurs when students return home.
Major Barriers of Long-Tern Success
1) Drugs / Alcohol (Poison Apples)
2) Negative Peer Groups (Big Bad Wolves)
3) Unchanged Family Environments
Teens who take part in our followup programs have demonstrated continued reduced drug use. When we meet as a group, our followup participants get the chance to build relationships with those who have completed our program. Our goal here is to continue to create a therapeutic community, outside of the expedition, for young people to find the difference between peers that push us to be better versus those that pull us backwards.
Unchanged family environments is the leading cause of a slip post treatment. When looking at program success, relationships and accountability/structure are the leading predictors for success and young people need this continued at home. I believe that everyone and anyone can benefit from having a therapist and counselor and believe that when we find our perfect therapist, we really begin to change the way that we positively relate to others.
For parents, this helps us to understand how our verbal tones and choice of words affect what our children "hear" and the way in which our child learns from his or her environment. Changing and controlling the way we think about our current situations can make all the difference. Its about doing something new and different to restore balance in our home.
If you're ever interested in talking about the latest findings in adolescent therapy or want to point me in the direction of some new research then I would be absolutely pleased to read anything! I am always hoping to improve True North Expeditions in order to help teens and families from all over Australia. We'll have a boy from Sydney on our upcoming expedition as well as some Victoria natives.
See you on the trail
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.