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The Open Sky Team

May 14th, 2020

The Power of Curiosity: A Conversation with Dr. Coady Schueler

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Coady Schueler, Psy.D.

Clinical therapist Coady Schueler, Psy.D. works with adolescent girls and their families at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. We sat down with Dr. Coady recently to learn more about her formative childhood and professional experiences, her treatment approach as a clinician, and her passion for wilderness therapy. Get to know Dr. Coady in the Q&A below!


Q: Tell us a little bit about your early years. What experiences informed your decision to become a therapist/psychologist?

A: I grew up in a family full of curiosity—curiosity about the world, others, and why we do things the way we do or think the way we think. My parents instilled that value in me from early on. I have memories of being around the dinner table as a child, and my parents would ask about our days, with thought-provoking questions… why do you think that happened? Why were you afraid? What do you think made your friend upset in that situation? My family communicated about the motivations beneath behaviors, not just behaviors themselves. This always resonated with me.

My capacity to connect to people is an innate part of my personality like it was for my parents. They role-modeled the importance of learning, connecting, and seeking to understand themselves and others. This family culture led me to pursue a professional career in helping others.

Dr. Coady Schueler

Q: Being a wilderness therapist is so different than working in private practice. What is it about wilderness therapy that drew you in?

A: Wilderness works! It’s the tangibility, the immediacy, the uniqueness, the structural separation from parents and families, and the peer group… All of these factors combined really make wilderness much more efficacious than any other setting, in my experience. In private practice with adolescents, I found that it is completely necessary for the parents to be involved in the process. I also found that it is unrealistic to expect an adolescent to apply what she learned in an hour-long weekly therapy session. Adolescents simply don’t have the executive functioning skills, along with other necessary skills, in order to make outpatient therapy effective.

Wilderness therapy is really the whole package. The adolescent is actively engaged in therapy and learning about herself every minute of the day—not just in session. Even if she thinks she’s “resisting” at first, little does she know that every part of her day is contributing to her progress: the chores, dinner conversations, packing her backpack, going on hiking expeditions, and keeping her gear clean and organized. These are lifelong skills: forming a daily routine, self-care, hygiene, mindfulness, effective communication, and so on.

Wilderness isn’t about the absence of struggle—that’s not life. It’s about struggling well. Do you step into the struggle or try to slide around it? A student will try, fail, learn, try again (and maybe again and again), and then achieve. Through this, she begins to feel competent. Competency is a feeling she may have never felt before, yet a feeling that is quite necessary to her emotional health, growth, and future success. Stepping in and meeting the challenge is how we grow. This is the essence of wilderness.

Wilderness therapy is also a setting in which students can learn how to better understand their vulnerabilities. It is a tall order to ask an adolescent to open up about their shame, their insecurities, their fear of rejection, their dissatisfaction with life, etc. Yet, this is what is needed for change to occur. With the structure at Open Sky, a student observes her peers opening up about their own struggles and bears witness to the emotionally safe opportunities to do the same. Perhaps in the past, she turned to promiscuity, drugs, disordered eating patterns, or self-harm to hide these feelings and insecurities. By talking openly about what she has historically kept hidden, she is on her way to better understanding herself and her behaviors.


Q: How does your experience in other mental health and therapeutic settings inform the work you do today?

A: With my breadth and depth of experience, I am able to bring the salient aspects of each setting to my work in wilderness. Most notable is my experience in psychological testing. This experience organizes the way in which I understand a student diagnostically. It also informs my treatment approach based on results and diagnoses and how best to help my students—and their families—understand a diagnosis.

Whether or not a student receives psychological testing and/or a formal diagnosis, wilderness helps us unpack her issues in a comprehensive assessment process. This lends clarity to what is really happening. Through this process and with my extensive background, I can help families and students really discern how to best move forward after Open Sky, function well in the world, and actualize their potential.


Q: Talk to us about your clinical approach…what types of interventions and therapeutic modalities do you find work well with your students?

A: I take a developmental approach. Adolescence is all about developing an identity and individuating from the family. The majority of my adolescent female students have somehow become stuck along this process. In my work with a student, I come with this developmental lens to help her better understand what happened and how she got off track. She learns to identify and express her emotions. I also incorporate the family systems lens into my approach: how have family dynamics impacted her development?

I individualize the treatment plan every step of the way. We often will do some DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) and work on unpacking and reversing cognitive distortions. Difficult experiences may have warped her beliefs about herself and the world. The work we do together helps her form a more congruent view.

The wilderness is the intervention. My role is to help my students be aware of how their patterns manifest and understand what they can do differently. I shed light on their struggles and successes throughout the week and what can be learned from both.


Q: How do you involve families in your process?

A: I’m as curious about the parent’s experience of the child and their own parenting as I am about the child’s personal experience. It’s all intertwined. Full investment from the parents is an essential component of this work; working with the child in isolation is not helpful. That’s why Open Sky offers such robust family programming.

I encourage parents to identify their strengths and struggles both as a parent and as a person. I challenge and support them right from the get-go, helping them grow alongside their child. Through their work, parents come to learn that we don’t cause our children’s struggles, but we can contribute to them. Similarly, we don’t cause our children’s successes, but we can contribute to them. Being a mother to my 18-year-old son also enhances my understanding and empathy for parents. Being a parent is a humbling role and this humility is woven throughout all of my work.


Q: What inspires you most in your work with adolescent girls?

A: I am inspired daily through the tangibility of this work. I observe my students come to Open Sky with a wealth of negative beliefs, struggle, and then begin taking incremental healthy risks. I witness them manage disappointment and achieve what they thought impossible. I see their defenses diminish and their communication evolve. This growth is apparent when they start a bow drill fire, when they express themselves assertively in a letter to their parents, when they complete a challenging hike, and when they transcend a conflict with a peer. I love the moments in the latter stages of the program when we can look back on week one and see, feel, and acknowledge their growth. They are more themselves when they leave than when they arrived. This is what inspires me.

Therapist Coady Schueler helps girls become more themselves when they leave Open Sky than when they arrived.


Q: What do you love about the southwest? What do you do in your free time?

A: I grew up on the East Coast. When I was 14, I did an Outward Bound course in Crestone, Colorado. From that day forward, I was drawn to the West. I moved to Park City, Utah in 1993 and ever since, have spent much of my free time in the outdoors, backcountry skiing, and hiking. I’m now making a home in Durango, Colorado, where I continue experiencing all that the mountains have to offer.

I take in the magic and beauty of this region with awe and wonder. It may take a while for my students to recognize the beauty of the wilderness with the same perspective. They are in the midst of crisis or turmoil, and many have not camped or even seen the stars before. There is something powerful about watching them take in the solace and beauty that comes with nature…whether they do so consciously or unconsciously. It was transformational for me as a 14-year-old girl, and I hope it can be for them, too.

The Open Sky Team

May 14th, 2020

The Open Sky Team