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Partnering with Nature to Promote Health and Wellness: A Q&A with Dr. Melia Snyder 

Melia Snyder, PhD, LPC, REAT | Education Director & Clinical Therapist

Featured Team Members: Melia Snyder, Ph.D., LPC, REAT

Q: What excites you most about working at Open Sky?

A: As a clinical therapist, what excites me most is the opportunity to work with my students in partnership with the wilderness as a co-therapist. The wilderness removes us from the distractions, demands, and stimulations that often contribute to an imbalanced and unhealthy life. It provides an opportunity to return to the core of who we are, get in touch with our values, and dive into our true identities. The students I work with really come to know themselves from place of strength, resilience, and competence. These characteristics and skills are transferrable to any stage of life.  

also love that Open Sky is a strengths-based, values-centric holistic wilderness therapy program. Everything we do supports the development of the whole person, promoting well-being for mind, body, spirit, and emotions. As a whole person, we are better equipped to engage whole-heartedly in our relationships and in the world. I believe that this type of integrative treatment is the only way true healing can occur. I also love the quality and intention with which families are integrated into every component and step of the program! When the family does their own work alongside the student, they not only inspire the students to continue their work, but they also increase the likelihood of long-lasting change. 

Open Sky’s core purpose and belief state that we ignite the potential of the human spirit and believe that all people have the capacity to thrive. This belief runs deeply throughout my work with students and families as a clinical therapist. It is my great joy to take part in igniting the potential within each student, family member, and staff that my work impacts, whether directly or indirectly. 

Q: How does your experience and your emphasis on nature-based expressive arts therapy impact your clinical work?

A: I have a Ph.D. in counseling and spent four and a half years as a professor at Appalachian State University, training Master’s-level students in counseling. I also directed the university’s Expressive Arts Therapy program—the only such program in the nation at a public university. In this role, I had the privilege to support post-graduate students in learning how to integrate the arts into their work as caring professionals.  

Expressive arts therapy harnesses our inherent capacities of contemplation, creativity, and expression and activates these as resources to support the therapeutic processour growth, healing, and development.  

For as long as humans have walked this earth, ceremony and ritual, sound and song, dance and movement, oral and visual storytelling, dreams and images have animated both the mundane and the sacred moments of life, supporting growth, connection, and healing. In most indigenous cultures, there is no word for “art”—these are simply ways of being human and of being in relationship with others and the world. We reclaim this view in expressive arts, recognizing that the arts are a part of who we are. The focus is therefore on the process, not the product, the technique, or the talent.  

As a clinician, I tune into how my clients want to express themselves. So many students ask to read more poetry or want to sketch in their free time. They take pride in the songs or encouragement they write for graduating students. They request time for creativity. I uncover what lights them up and utilize it in ways that bring about healing.  

Q: Tell us more about your book, Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy.

A: As a professor and director of an expressive arts therapy program, I brought a strong emphasis on nature-based work and ecotherapy. My mentor in these roles was Dr. Sally Atkins, the person who began the program in 1985. Dr. Atkins and I co-authored the book Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy. In it, we explore the idea that how we live matters and creates our experience of health or dis-ease. We also discuss nature as a metaphor of creative process, the health-promoting aspects of wilderness and nature, and working with nature as a co-therapist. Our book is the first to combine the fields of ecotherapy and expressive arts. 

"Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy" - co-authored by Dr. Melia Snyder, therapist at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy

My clinical approach as a nature-based expressive arts therapist draws on the inner creative resources of my clients as well as the power of the wilderness as a guide, mirror, metaphor, and co-therapist. The natural world provides a model for the creative process and the wilderness provides a lens through which we can recognize our own wholeness. In contrast to approaches that seek to eliminate pathology, nature-based expressive arts seeks to understand the symptoms, to give them expression, and to listen for their wisdom for what needs to change in our lives. The creative self and the creative world around us work together to promote our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  

As healthy humans, we are able to positively impact and promote health in the relationships and systems that hold us: our families, social circles, culture, and environment. I’m thrilled to put my knowledge of this field into practice through my clinical work with students and families aOpen Sky. 

Q: What is your treatment approach as a clinical therapist? How do you relate to your clients and their families?

A: As a doctoral student, my research focused on salutogenesis—the promotion of health. This continues to be my focus and approach as a clinician. My goal is to promote health in all aspects of life, tending to issues of meaning, coping skills, and protective factors. The challenges faced by those of the generation we call “Gen Z” are unique. There is a climate of loneliness, isolation, and negative relationship with technology. On top of that, many students come with specific diagnoses. I respect the complexity of these challenges and empower my students to craft a positive, productive, healthy, and thriving life. 

I also incorporate narrative therapy in my work as a clinical therapist. Narrative therapy recognizes that each of us is the author of our own life story. I listen for the stories that my students tell through their language and empower them to become conscious of how it shapes their reality. Students in my group gain the tools to create a story that they are proud of, as opposed to a “problem”-saturated narrative. Additionally, my extensive training in family-centered treatment and trauma-focused CBT informs my approach with my clients. 

I feel passionate about supporting parents through their process at Open Sky. Parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. My belief is that parents are doing the best they can with what they have. We all need support! I empower parents to look at issues and struggles from different perspectives, broadening their outlook in ways that help their kids reach their long-term goals. 

Dr. Melia Snyder incorporates expressive arts therapy into her work with adolescent girls

Q: How do you express yourself creatively? What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

A: I love writing poetry. In fact, my book includes a lot of my original poetry. I am inspired by change found in nature’s creative process, and I enjoy incorporating this imagery and metaphor into my writing, sketching, and collage. My truest creative expression is through my work as a teacher and therapist, creating and holding space, crafting ceremony, and intentionally shaping the group culture and process.  

I really enjoy living in the Four Corners area and exploring new places with my partner and our dogIt’s important to me to develop a sense of place and increase my knowledge about the people that came before and their way of life. I try to honor that in my work, play, and everyday life.

November 5th, 2019

Melia Snyder, PhD, LPC, REAT | Education Director & Clinical Therapist