Participating in sports offers a variety of benefits for student athletes, such as building resilience, teamwork skills, and confidence. Student athletes, however, are also under unique pressures, and many schools have seen an increase in mental health challenges for these young people. In this episode of the SKYlights Podcast, Senior Clinical Therapist Chris Blankenship, MSW, LCSW offers valuable insight into what makes athletes prone to mental health challenges and how he works with students to help them find healing and growth through wilderness therapy.
Chris is a licensed clinical social worker. He has a BA in psychology from the University of Colorado and a Master in Social Work from the University of Southern California. A Colorado native, he has enthusiastically explored the peaks and valleys of the natural world while simultaneously dedicating his professional career to working with struggling youth.
In college, Chris conducted research on inherent racial stereotyping and the stress-reducing properties of nature. After college, he spent a summer volunteering to clean up the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and decided to move to New Orleans. There he spent years teaching at a low-income school, where his calm confidence enabled him to successfully educate and guide a traumatized population of at-risk youth. Chris also envisioned and then facilitated a school-based club with the goal of assisting young men transitioning to adulthood.
While in Southern California, Chris counseled adolescents living in individual and group foster-care settings and worked as a child welfare investigator in an inner-city setting. These experiences allowed him to develop assessment and clinical skills in an environment where people regularly experienced a life of crisis. Chris brought wilderness therapy to this urban environment when he developed and implemented an outdoor-based therapeutic intervention for children whose parents were struggling with addiction and incarceration.
At Open Sky, Chris works with transition age young adults, 18-20 years old, who have not been able to find a healthy sense of self. These young adults often experience depression, anxiety, trouble launching into adulthood, difficulty in relationships, substance use, personal trauma, and problematic dynamics with family members. Chris’ clear and direct therapeutic approach helps students deepen their understanding of their presenting issues as well as the underlying processes resulting in these symptoms. Using evidence-based treatment modalities, Chris provides direct and supportive techniques that help families to understand not just their child, but their entire family system. He strives to help his young adults stabilize, to give them the tools necessary for growth, and to provide a sophisticated assessment for future treatment options to effect positive change and growth.
When not at work, Chris enjoys hiking with his wife, daughter, and dog; backpacking; mountaineering; cooking and sharing meals with friends; and playing and watching team sports.
Sports are innately a win or lose game.You’re striving all day every day, to be the best at something, to vanquish your opponent. That kind of stress is going to lead to a lot of extra work. It’s also going to lead to occasional failure, which puts you under a lot of pressure. I think with student athletes, they’re also under pressure to be students.
There are actually a lot of studies that suggest that athletes participating in mental health treatment is significantly more likely to happen if they’re being encouraged by their family or their friends. And it’s really not that likely to occur if they’re being encouraged by coaches or teammates, because those are the people that they’re actually beholden to. Those are the people they want to be there for.
It’s disheartening because this is supposed to be a game. It’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be entertainment, but what it turns into for a lot of people is really life or death. It turns into the difference between me being healthy and me losing control of my life.
The majority of people that I’ve worked with who’ve been either college athletes or high-level high school athletes who are then transitioning out of it have done so well here because they see this as kind of the new sport. This is the new team.
You might have to get back in the driver’s seat a little bit and say, ‘Hey, I want you to figure things out and I want you to be happy. And it is okay if you take a different road. I know I once put pressure on you, but now this is your thing and it’s been your thing for a long time. I want you to know that it is okay to find a new thing. It is okay if you want to go different.’
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.