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Safe Journey: How Clinical Therapist Barbara Ferri Partners with Wilderness to Build and Heal Relationships

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Barbara Ferri, LCSW

Barbara Ferri, LCSW is a Clinical Therapist for adolescent girls at Open Sky. She holds a master’s degree in social welfare and a bachelor’s degree in human development. Barbara understands people as whole individuals with many different influences in their lives. Using a supportive and nonjudgmental approach, Barbara works with the whole family system to heal and create lasting change. Get to know more about Barbara in the Q&A below! 

Clinical Therapist Barbara Ferri

How did you develop a passion for mental health, working with young people, and family therapy?

It’s been a long journey, and as a young person, not something I thought I could achieve or even had as an option for myself. I grew up in a rougher suburban area of Los Angeles and while I was academically smart, I wasn’t a very well-behaved kid. I think that is one reason I now feel a special connection with working with teenagers and young adults.   

I started out in early education, learning about child and human development. While working in early education, it was fascinating to see how parenting styles impacted how the student or child was behaving. After I was in early education, I started working in public mental health. I connected with people who were disenfranchised and experiencing serious mental illness and decided I wanted to make the mental health field a lifelong career.  

I went to grad school, which was a life-changing experience for me. I got my master’s degree in social work from UCLA in 2010. During that time, my emphasis was on children and families and specifically trauma and abuse. I learned about trauma and how that looks in our behaviors and how we trust and connect with people. I learned about social justice issues, which was important for me in trying to make mental health more accessible and accepted by people of different cultures. I learned about family systems and the overall resilience of humans when they have the right support and safety in their environments.  

From that point on, I continued to work with teenagers and young adults along with their families. I spent about eight years in public child welfare systems, working with families who were struggling badly in their dynamics. I learned so much about families, how different they can be, and how to work with them in getting their needs met.  

 I also started a private practice, and a lot of the things I incorporated into it align with Open Sky. For instance, I think mindfulness and meditation are important for people to practice every day. I also think that movement is vital, especially for people struggling with anxiety and depression. It can be a difficult thing to accomplish on your own, so in my private practice, I would take people out for nature walks during our sessions. At the time, I was in Leadville, Colorado, so we would be able to access the Mineral Belt Trail right outside our front door.  

What are your strengths as a therapist, and how do you build therapeutic relationships?

I’ve spent a lot of time with people, and I’ve learned to listen to their stories, respect their journeys, and trust that they are experts in their own lives and what they need. They don’t always know it without someone asking questions, and for some of my clients, nobody’s ever asked before. I’m along to support, but I’m not there to tell my clients what to do. I hold the space for people to lead their own journeys and reconnect with who they are. I see this happen at Open Sky. I hear from the students that they feel like they’re more themselves than they’ve ever felt in the past. I think that’s because they’re removed from the noise of city life, social media, school drama, and other distractions.  

I help people release judgment, form relationships, and learn coping skills. I help them make better decisions so that they can build the self-confidence they need to either transition to independence or be able to function in their families and have more fulfilling relationships. I think so many people have relational trauma, and it keeps them from opening up or trusting other people or their environments. There is resilience in relationships when you have trust, so I try to have a healthy amount of self-disclosure to show them I’m here, and I’ve been through things too. You’re not alone. Creating safety is one of my top priorities. 

I also strive to see the big picture of someone’s wellness, not just their current, presenting issues. I ask my clients questions like, what is your family like? What is your school like? What kind of food are you eating? I look at all the things that go into how someone feels inside their own skin. I’m nonjudgmental and help people create visions for themselves of a happier, more fulfilling way of life. I think it helps people feel confident in themselves when they understand that someone else can see an alternative way of living for them, believes they can have it, and are able to support them in how to get there. 

What modalities do you bring into your work with students and families?

I’m skilled in motivational interviewing, which is intended to spark the will to change within people when what they’re doing isn’t in alignment with what they really want. I’m also trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). I use EMDR with people who are coming from trauma, but it’s also very effective for people experiencing anxiety and negative core beliefs or are repeating unhealthy patterns and don’t understand why. I do visualizations to help people tap into their deeper thoughts. I also use mindfulness and meditation as tools to help people slow down and make better decisions in their day-to-day life. I pull from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help people increase coping skills and build better relationships. To go along with that, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is woven into everything. CBT helps motivate change and get to the core beliefs and thoughts that are keeping people from doing what it is that they need to do.  

What are you most excited about within the realm of wilderness therapy?

I have experienced my own healing journey and the impact wilderness can have on mental health and wellness. It was not something I grew up with. I discovered it in adulthood, and the more I started incorporating time in wilderness into my life, the more I realized how good it felt to go hiking or camping and turn my phone off for a few days. I realized it was powerful, and it started becoming a part of my life. I’m so excited to be part of an organization that centers treatment on nature and wilderness. I think there are innate healing properties in the four elements that many people won’t ever know because they just haven’t been exposed to it. It’s an amazing experience; connecting with nature is so healing. 

I see a lot of value in both the outdoor experience and the supportive group experience that happens when students are out with others, going through hard things and overcoming obstacles. I think they learn that while they can’t control the elements and their environments, they are still able to thrive and get through hard things. The aspects of physical movement in wilderness therapy are also great for the nervous system. For kids who were doing things like a ton of gaming at home, they don’t even know that they can feel this actual, chemical improvement in their bodies and nervous systems by getting outside and doing something challenging.   

Finally, the ability to build confidence and be self-sufficient in the wilderness is very empowering. At this age, students are looking for ways to believe in themselves and know that they can be OK and take care of their needs.  

What are your passions outside of work? How do they help you learn and grow both personally and professionally?

Cycling and hiking are the top things I like to do. Both help me regulate my nervous system. Like many, I’ve experienced stress in my life, so I have had to find ways to take care of myself and my body. I prioritize exercise because I don’t think I can show up as a therapist if I’m not feeling good. It’s also important for me to do yoga and spend time with my dog, which is probably one of my favorite things to do right now. He’s a rescue animal and has had his own trauma recovery journey. I’m intending to have him complete the certification process Open Sky requires for dogs to be at base camp. I also start every day with a meditation and journaling. I’ve found that showing up consistently and doing something regularly really helps.  

Travel has also been a big part of my life for a long time. I love traveling to other countries and cities and learning how other people live in different places. I think culture is important to understand, especially in this country, where our diversity comes from having so many people with roots in different countries. At Open Sky, we tap into practices that come from around the world, so I want to acknowledge those practices and give them respect.  

April 13th, 2022

The Open Sky Team