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Morgan Robak

September 7th, 2018

Planting the Seeds of Change: How Clinical Therapist Morgan Robak Helps Adolescent Boys Flourish in Wilderness

Morgan Robak, LCSW | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys Group

 

Q: What led you to become a wilderness therapist?

A: In my senior year of undergrad, I did a NOLS backpacking and pack rafting trip in Alaska for 32 days. I learned an immense amount about myself. I came out of that experience a completely different person with a whole new level of confidence. I finished my undergrad degree and decided that I had to work outside. I knew I wanted to be a social worker, even though everyone told me I’m too sensitive to be a social worker. Yes, I’m sensitive and I’m strong and I use both to my benefit, working with adolescents. After the NOLS trip and graduating with my social work degree, I read something about wilderness therapy in a NOLS alumni email. I started researching the field and the role of a wilderness therapist and was eager to learn more. I deferred grad school for a year to work as a wilderness therapy field guide. This experience gave me a deeper understanding of the work and only served to solidify my decision to pursue a career as a wilderness therapist. I went back to grad school, completed my degree, and I’m now coming up on 5 years as a wilderness therapist.

I give the credit to the wilderness. Hiking, summiting mountains, being outside provides the foundation of the work. I help my students make sense of it all, put words to what they’re experiencing, and draw parallels to what is happening at home.

 

Q: You have an adolescent boys group at Open Sky. Are there benefits to being a female therapist in an all-boys group?

A: I believe I am a strong role model in my group of adolescent boys. I am able to hold boundaries and also show compassion, which is really powerful as a female therapist. I try very hard to stay away from being thought of as a “motherly figure”. My approach is: I have my arm around you and at the same time, I’m challenging you with new goals and expectations. You can do this, I believe in you.

When I work with the parents, I can draw attention to where enmeshment and emotions may hinder a healthy parent-child relationship. By holding boundaries and showing compassion to my students, I model for parents how to continue with the same healthy patterns in their parenting.

As a female in a group of males, I am also able to directly address the topic of respect for women. As a woman, I can come in and challenge disrespectful language or ideas in a real, first-hand way. It’s an opportunity for students to apply the feedback they receive and associate the hurt they might be causing in real-time with a female figure. I normalize conversations about how to treat women and girls rather than shy away from those topics.

I go into the team with confidence and work to build rapport and trust, just like any therapist needs to, whether male or female, and whether in a male, female, or mixed group. I have to meet every student where he’s at and earn his trust just as he has to earn mine.

 

Q: What are your strengths as a wilderness therapist?

A: Some of my clinical strengths are working with self-harm, suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, severe depression, and severe anxiety. I use a variety of evidence-based clinical modalities in my work with students. I utilize CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) when appropriate, but sometimes these approaches can be too advanced for certain kids. So, I always use a strengths-based approach.

In a strengths-based approach, my angle is to focus on things the student is doing well. I weave a student’s strengths into areas in which he may be struggling. For example, I worked with a student who had been suicidal and did not connect with others due to severe depression. He struggled to understand others’ emotions, practice empathy and put himself into other people’s shoes. As we worked together and I built rapport with him, I came to realize that his sister was someone who he loved tremendously, admired, and would do anything for. So, instead of focusing on his lack of relationships, we shifted focus to his relationship with his sister. Using this relationship, I could draw connections between the way he felt towards his sister in certain circumstances to how he felt toward his peers in the team or his parents. This empowered him to recognize that he can love, he does love, and he is capable of being loved. He could see that he is able to have healthy relationships because he already has one—with his sister. Focusing on the strength of how he loves his sister, as opposed to the lack of other relationships in his life, was key to helping him see that he can build relationships and feel connected. He can love and be loved.

Another strength is my ability to help students build a cognitive understanding of what’s actually going on so that they can put words to their feelings. I guide them to realize that there is a bridge connecting the body and mind. If you think something and you’re sick later, it’s helpful to recognize this connection. Or if you ignore a feeling, it may come out later in a physical response. I give my students the tools to be aware of these connections.

My experience as a field guide is also a strength. It has allowed me to communicate and work with the guides in my team as I gather information. Field Guides are the eyes and the ears for the work that is being done in the field. Having an understanding of what they do creates opportunities for us to collaborate and increase our effectiveness, together.

 

Q: What are you most passionate about working at Open Sky?

A: I’m definitely passionate about the family systems component; that we’re able to offer so many different avenues for parents to be part of the process. The kids find themselves in such an unexpected and unknown territory. At times, they may have the feeling that they’re alone in this process. So, it’s really encouraging when they hear their parents are working in the parallel Family Pathway, going to Wellness Weekend, coming out for a Family Quest™, or participating in a Monday night parent support group call. As the student’s therapist, it’s instrumental in my work to have the confidence that our families receive the support and guidance they to heal as a family.

 

Q: What are your interests and passions outside the field?

A: I love to be creative. I challenge myself through making pottery and have started painting more. I was typically using acrylic paint but now am using watercolor which is really difficult and humbling. It’s a totally different technique. I also love tending my plants.

(How many plants do you have?)

Do you really want to know? I have over 70 house plants…and that’s not counting the ones outside! My fiancé tells me not to buy any more plants, but I say, “well, what if I find one that needs a home?” My indoor plants are succulents, primarily. We have a garden too, which I love. Gardening teaches me patience and understanding. I love to look every day to see what’s new and what’s growing. If something’s not growing, I try to determine why and what this plant needs to thrive. Is it getting too much sun? Not enough sun? Am I watering too much or too little? Is the soil not right? Is the pH level off?

This can be translated to my work with students in so many ways. Working to build a relationship with my students takes patience and time. The students come to Open Sky as a “seed” and as their therapist, my job is to offer them water, sun, and the proper soil to grow. If they are stuck in their work and not thriving, I ask myself “why?” and “what do they need to thrive?” I teach them to ask themselves these same questions, which will help them to build awareness. It will empower them to make changes, to challenge themselves, and perhaps,… “move to a different window to get a little more sun.”

 

Q: What do you love about the Southwest?

A: Growing up in Wisconsin, my family would often go up north to our cabin. At a young age, I fell in love with the woods—exploring, hiking, fishing, and hunting with my dad. As I started my adult life, I knew I wanted to see what else was out there. As a family, we had not spent much time out West and I knew that is where I wanted to live and explore. Utah feels like home to me. My fiancé and I met in Southern Utah and have explored many areas climbing, hiking, skiing or backpacking. Finding a place that many people have not been, seems to be my goal when I adventure out on the weekends. Every time I am in the field or out exploring with my partner, I learn something about myself. I learn more about how I can be a better daughter, sister, partner, friend, coworker, and therapist. Questions I ask my students or families, I often ask myself. Just like I crave going to places that people have not been, I constantly asking myself questions I have not explored internally as well.

Morgan Robak

September 7th, 2018

Morgan Robak, LCSW | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys Group