Activating Potential: A Q&A with Clinical Director & Therapist, Sebastiaan Zuidweg
Sebastiaan Zuidweg, MA, LPC | Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist
Featured Team Members: Sebastiaan Zuidweg, MA, LPC
A: One of the most amazing things about wilderness therapy is the way it cultivates community and connection. Within the safe therapeutic environment created in the wilderness, there is space for self-reflection and increased self-awareness. There are opportunities for learning and growth through metaphor and in exploring one’s own identity and values. Wilderness therapy isn’t just therapy in wilderness, it’s about integrating the qualities of nature into the treatment. There is mysticism and wonder about why exactly nature is so powerful. That keeps me really passionate about this work as Clinical Director and therapist…the wonder that comes from just being outside under stars or experiencing an owl flying over the group around the campfire. Those moments make the experience more salient and special.
As Clinical Director and therapist, I have the best of both worlds. In the therapist role, I work with the students and families in a beautiful natural setting, collaborating with field guides and the rest of the treatment team. As Clinical Director, I also get to support the Clinical Team and activate their potential as therapists. The job feels really important to me and I carry a lot of pride in this role.
A: I started off as a field guide and then became a wilderness therapist for another program for three years. At that time, the model for therapists was to go on 25-day-long expeditions with the students and guides. With seven to nine of those expeditions each year, I gained close to 600 days in the field. What I bring to my role at Open Sky is a deep understanding of what it’s like to do the work as a field guide and also what it’s like to spend a considerable amount of time out there. I have respect for what the Field Team is doing, how they help to carry out the treatment objectives, support the growth of each student, challenge them, and hold the therapeutic “container” day in and day out.
I believe wilderness therapy really is one of the best modalities out there. Even the very basics of the program are beneficial to one’s well-being. Basic self-care and mastery of survival skills, such as creating fire with natural objects, building shelter, and navigating in the wild all build a real sense of security, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.
This creates a really strong foundation; the base of Maslow’s hierarchy. If those needs are being met—if a young person feels they have the tools and ability to survive—it opens up his/her potential to really dive into their emotional work and begin to thrive both in the wilderness and in relationships, family, school, and life in general. Once the basic needs are met, confidence is built and the student can work on identity development. You don’t get to work through that basic step in a clinic or office setting.
The transformation that I witness from day one to graduation and family reunification is really quite incredible. I’m always blown away by the students’ ability to articulate emotions and thoughts, the way they communicate with the team, and how they become more integrated into their families.
A: In my previous work as a wilderness therapist, I really honed my skillset and expanded my use of nature as metaphor and a catalyst for healing. After that, I worked in a community mental health setting. Some of that work was with individuals facing significant crises and severe mental health issues. My role was to support people experiencing psychosis, self-harming behavior, and suicidal ideation in my community. Sometimes that meant facilitating psychiatric hospitalization and other times I was able to creatively intervene to keep the individual safe in their home environment.
I then stepped into a clinical management role, which also informs my work here at Open Sky. My strength as a leader in the role of Clinical Director is my collaborative spirit, both within the Clinical Team and interdepartmentally. My work style is solution-focused, forward-thinking, and centered on an innate belief in each person’s potential. I support my staff in finding and activating that potential within themselves. I have an open-door policy and give feedback from a very grounded place. I can be an anchor for them when things become stressful or urgent and when they face challenges that are difficult to manage alone.
I strongly believe that how we present professionally as a treatment team and as a program parallels the work we do with our students. If we have the ability to work through crisis, give and receive feedback, and remain solution-focused, these trickle down to how we work with students, families, and each other. I say this to the students and the staff I work with: we have the choice to react or to respond. As professionals, we aim to respond to situations from a grounded, centered, thoughtful, and intentional place. This is in line with Open Sky’s mission of inspiring people to learn and live in line with values. Those values guide our behaviors.
In my work as a clinical therapist, I use a relationship-based, client-centered approach. I focus on developing therapeutic relationship and connection. From that foundation, I incorporate motivational interviewing, solution-focused therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy to motivate and activate change. I utilize experiential therapeutic activities to evoke emotions or patterns.
I use the same approach with parents. The family systems approach is so important. We don’t believe in the concept of the “problem child”. Change needs to also happen at home within the family dynamic and relationships. Families tend to get stuck in a state of homeostasis in their patterns and dynamics. These patterns are cyclical and are often rooted in pain and dysfunction. I encourage a mutual investment in growth and change and place a huge emphasis on families taking a close look at these dysfunctional patterns. The work families do at Open Sky is meant to break up that homeostasis and encourage healthier patterns and relationships.
A: It struck me pretty quickly that each person on the team is incredibly invested in clinical growth and excellence. As their Clinical Director, I’m inspired by the ways they’ve each crafted and honed their skill sets to accommodate and specialize in a wide range of population issues. They seek out the training and evolve into even more skilled clinicians. This high level of commitment has resulted in a clinical team with a very diverse set of specializations, able to treat a broad variety of client profiles. Their personal passions and qualities deepen the team’s ability as well, whether that is through creative expression, yoga, meditation, research, music, etc. These passions become assets in their work in building relationship and implementing treatment plans for their clients.
A: My family immigrated to the U.S. from Holland when I was 7 years old. Coming from a pretty flat, populated nation to Washington state, I was always drawn to the outdoors. I moved to Colorado when I was 18 and have lived here most of my life. I love it not only because of mountains and wilderness and adventure activities but because of the people as well. The communities are special; some of the warmest and most inviting people I’ve known.
In my free time, my favorite thing to do is rock climbing, whether here or in the Utah desert. I love backcountry skiing. I actually met my wife through climbing and skiing in the backcountry. The wilderness and adventure activity brought us together. My blue heeler, Scout is my other adventure buddy.
Hear more from Sebastiaan about his background and clinical approach in his SKYlights Podcast episode. CLICK HERE to access!