In this episode of SKYlights, the Open Sky Wilderness Therapy podcast, we talk to Clinical Therapist and Education Director Melia Snyder, who’s not only an expert on nature-based expressive arts therapy, she wrote the book on it! In our conversation with Melia, we discuss how her background led her to therapy and education, her experience with nature-based expressive arts therapy, how this type of therapy promotes overall health, and how she helps her students craft a positive, productive, healthy and thriving life.
We also discuss her aforementioned book, Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy, in which she expanded her research to look at the ways the wilderness, combined with the arts, can play an impactful role in treatment for mental health issues.
Dr. Melia Snyder earned her MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a Certificate in Expressive Arts Therapy from Appalachian State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Counseling from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Expressive Arts Therapist.
During her doctoral studies, Dr. Melia immersed herself in studying factors and behaviors that contribute to wellness and thriving despite life’s inevitable challenges. She conducted her doctoral research on salutogenesis (the promotion of health) among young women in recovery from substance use disorders. Her study revealed that those who participated in a structured group therapy intervention that incorporated the arts experienced significant gains in their sense of meaning, coping capacities, and ability to make sense of their lives in comparison to those who just participated in the usual treatment. Dr. Melia is excited to bring her passion for health promotion and the arts to students and families at Open Sky.
Prior to joining the Open Sky team, Dr. Melia was a counselor educator and supervisor in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. She also directed the Appalachian Expressive Arts Therapy program, which teaches counselors, educators, and other helping professionals to incorporate the arts into their work. Her focus within her academic career was bringing the health-promoting capacities of wilderness, nature, and the arts into counseling—a topic she explores in her book, Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy.
Additionally, Dr. Melia brings more than 15 years of experience working with families in crisis. She has worked in a variety of settings, including wilderness, community mental health, integrated care, and private practice. She is trained in Family Centered Treatment and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and enjoys studying depth psychology and ecopsychology. Dr. Melia was drawn to Open Sky’s strong focus on whole person health, the depth-oriented and nature-based Student Pathway, and the integrity with which families are integrated into treatment. As Open Sky’s education director, Dr. Melia brings her knowledge and experience to support curriculum development at Open Sky.
In her downtime, Dr. Melia enjoys writing poetry, eating good food, engaging in meaningful conversation, and exploring the beautiful San Juan Mountains with her husband and dog.
Nature-based expressive arts uses both the arts and nature in an integrated way, creating a therapeutic process to support our students here at Open Sky.
Expressive arts is the use of the arts in an integrated way to support human growth, development, and healing.
I was having a conversation with a woman who does very similar work and she shared a phrase that I’m going to pass along. She said, when we have nature-based experiences it fills a reservoir within us and that becomes a place that we can draw from as we face challenges in our lives.
For expressive arts, we think back to as long as humans have been on the planet, they have been involved in the arts. We sing when we get together with our community, we dance and we move together. We create ritual pieces for ceremony, and we celebrate with food, making of masks and art. It’s just been a natural part of being human.
Similarly, with ecotherapy, our connection with nature and with the places where we live, with the land, with the landscape, with the sky, with the earth, with the plants, that is all our sense of belonging. When we get busy and we get distracted and we become out of touch with our sense of place, we experience loneliness and disconnect. I really see that amongst the young people that I work with now. It’s about getting back in touch with, and returning to our roots and what it means to be human and what it means to be whole.
In expressive arts, we use the language of harvesting, and so harvesting these internal resources that were always there, but that we were not quite in touch with. That’s one of the beauties I think of this work. We do something out of our norm and then we learn new things about ourselves and then those resources we take into our lives.
On a wilderness trip in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1995, Emily discovered she could combine two of her passions: working with youth and being outdoors. Since then, she has worked for Aspen Achievement Academy, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, and Connecticut Wilderness School. She was part of the founding team at Open Sky.
Emily worked as the lead therapist for adolescent girls for her first 5 years at Open Sky. Her areas of clinical expertise include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, trauma, self-harm, disordered eating, and adoption and attachment issues. Her clinical approach is informed by cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, family systems, and attachment theories. Relationship building through letter writing is a major focus of her work with students and families.
As a founder and owner of Open Sky, as well as the Clinical and Executive Director, Emily brings a breadth of knowledge with her background as a therapist, field guide, trainer, logistics coordinator, emergency responder, and field director, Emily is known for her direct, caring leadership style, her ability to inspire excellence in others, and her team oriented approach. The student treatment plan is her compass for her decision-making regarding Open Sky’s students, families, and employees.
Emily loves reading, writing, yoga, mountain biking, telemark skiing, rock climbing, spending time with friends and family, and cooking with foods from the local farmers’ market.