Featured Team Members: Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC
Why did you choose wilderness therapy, as opposed to practicing therapy in more traditional settings?
I am passionate about helping young adults heal, reconnect with themselves, and reach their goals. I’ve found that wilderness therapy is the most effective way for people to do that. My experience in outpatient and inpatient settings highlighted that people frequently need more support. As a young adults therapist at Open Sky, I am able to blend my background as a behavior analyst, clinical therapist, and art therapist in the wilderness setting to support a young adult’s path to change.
What do you value most about the wilderness and the role it plays in a young adult’s health and experience?
We have all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”. Wilderness therapy provides so many opportunities to practice skills in the moment, rather than just talk about them. Challenges in the wilderness naturally trigger certain emotions, behaviors, and habits young people deal with in their lives. At Open Sky, students have the professional support in the moment, right when they need it, to practice and form new habits that support true change.
The wilderness also allows students to take an honest look at themselves and see who they are, where they are in their lives, and what needs to change. They eventually have to ask themselves, am I truly committed to my own change? The wilderness can challenge and motivate students to follow through.
What are your strengths as a wilderness therapist?
There is no cookie-cutter way of going through Open Sky. I love collaborating with my young adult students and their families to individualize what they want to accomplish at Open Sky. One of my strengths is meeting students where they are at in order to assess and develop a plan that supports their growth. My goal as a young adult therapist is to inspire students to understand and invest in themselves. In order to do this, we need to understand what is happening and then what do we need to do to head forward. With my varied background and interests, I am able to draw on different modalities like creative therapies, podcasts, music, books, and articles to help students identify what’s going on and how can they be their own agent for change.
What do you enjoy about working with young adults, specifically?
There’s this cool interaction of cognitive discourse that occurs with young adults about what is at the heart of an issue and the need for change. Young adults are at pivotal moments in their lives where they are asking themselves higher level questions: Who do I want to be in the world? How do I care for and support myself? How do I relate differently to my parents now than I did as a child? How do I become an independent, self-fulfilled person? My goal is to support students in understanding themselves while empowering them to take responsibility for their behaviors and lives.
How do you engage the parents of young adults in the process? Is this different than how parents of adolescent students might engage?
It’s no less important for the parents of a young adult to be engaged in the process than the parents of an adolescent. I work with parents to help them see that the work they do at Open Sky sets a meaningful example for their child. Frequently, parents can inspire their child to become more invested in their own growth. A difference I see with families of young adults is the transition of responsibility—parents are learning to give their child responsibility for their choices and behaviors. This transition often requires parents setting appropriate boundaries and expectations. I help parents learn and establish different styles of communication through which they can both love their child and hold boundaries at the same time.
What are you most passionate about in this work as a young adults therapist?
My passion for this work comes out in four main areas:
What makes Open Sky unique in terms of wilderness therapy programs?
I am at Open Sky because this is the most effective treatment model I have ever experienced. I see Open Sky as providing comprehensive assessment and treatment for each student and family. Strengths include the focus on family systems work, holistic health, psychiatric and psychological assessment, evidence-based mindfulness practice, and experiential learning.
Open Sky’s focus on holistic health is not just about teaching coping skills or increasing medication. We pay attention to whole health: What substances, food, or technology are you putting into your body? What does self-care look like for you? How are you managing your emotions? What does communication look like in your life? What is your relationship with yourself, your family, and your community? Are you taking the right medication? Wilderness therapy is an incredible opportunity to assess what is happening and reset.
Open Sky stands out in our work with family systems. In order to provide opportunities for parents to connect and grow with their child, we weave in letters, phone calls, and face-to-face interaction during Family Quests. Through these channels, parents have real-time practice with the skills they learn through the Monday night parent support group phone calls, their work in the Family Pathway, and their participation in Wellness Weekend and Enhanced Family Services. We provide so much support for parents and families to reconnect with each other and communicate effectively.
Having a psychiatrist on staff makes us unique as well. It adds an important dimension to our treatment team and what we are able to provide students. We have eyes on students 24/7 and as the treatment team leader for my group of young adults, I can communicate with our psychiatrist about medication changes based on behaviors we are seeing in a student. We can titrate someone off of medication, support stabilization and detox in the field, and optimize medication for each student as needed.
How do you continue to learn, grow, and have fun both personally and professionally?
I am a sculpture artist and am committed to my own art practice. (This is one of my pieces, made from bronze and glass.) This practice and commitment inspire me to bring art and creativity out to my students. I have a love for the outdoors, creating community, and pushing my comfort zone both emotionally and physically. I bring my love for these things to my students as well.
I love learning. I’m passionate about continually pursuing knowledge and growth and I try to inspire that in my students. I’m constantly incorporating the things I’m learning into my therapy. It could be something from a class I’m taking about regulating your nervous system, an art practice, meditation retreat, a song, book, or podcast that is particularly impactful and relevant to a student’s situation.
I keep up with current events and will talk about them with my students. We’ll discuss how they live and show up in the world when intense events are happening all around us. Helping my students to think critically motivates me to do the same. I’m inspired by them every day.