Senior Clinical Therapist, Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC (adolescent boys) addresses common questions about the “solo” experience at Open Sky, from purpose to impact, and logistics to supervision. Jonathan celebrates his 10-year Open Sky anniversary this month. He has facilitated more than 1000 solos over the course of his tenure at Open Sky.
Jonathan: A solo experience provides time and space to reflect without distraction – whether a student has been at Open Sky for a few weeks or is closer to the end of their stay. For students who have been at Open Sky for a shorter period of time, oftentimes they haven’t truly reflected on how their past choices, patterns, and experiences have impacted themselves and others. These moments of realization are often necessary to step forward into making deep and meaningful change. A solo gives students space to really consider their past and look ahead to how they want to change going forward.
Students who have been at Open Sky for a longer period of time are on the other side of these realizations. The solo provides an opportunity to reflect on how they’ve changed here, what they’ve let go of, and who they ultimately want to become.
Another intention of a solo is actually to give students time separate from the group. Wilderness therapy is a very immersive experience. Almost every waking moment is spent with others. And while the team setting is incredibly therapeutic and beneficial in its own right, there are times solo time can be equally impactful. Time alone helps individuals process what they are learning in new, prominent, and meaningful ways.
Solos can also be a good assessment tool. Perhaps a student has been doing really well in the group, but she struggles on the solo to be productive and follow through on tasks. This is hugely insightful when moving forward with her therapeutic treatment. Or, perhaps a student has a hard time relating to his peers in the group but excels at his wilderness skills and therapeutic assignments when he is on his own. Similarly, this helps us strategize moving forward in how best to assist him in using his strengths in relationship with others.
Jonathan: The solo is meant to be an intervention that challenges the students to really face their past and their work. It’s not a “one size fits all” proposition. If the therapist believes a student isn’t ready to be challenged through a solo experience or isn’t ready in terms of his or her hard skills, we don’t put them on a solo. Just being in wilderness therapy is challenge enough for certain students. A student who does not participate in a solo experience will still have a meaningful growth experience.
The solo is meant to overlay on top of the program for students who might benefit therapeutically from the experience. In a way, it is a catalyst for progress, no matter what stage of the journey a student is at. It is not a required part of the Open Sky process, though the majority of students do experience this highly-customized intervention. For these students, our aim is for them to do solos twice throughout their time here. One nearer to the beginning of their stay and one closer to the end. This gives them that opportunity to reflect on their past before Open Sky and again later on their growth at Open Sky.
Most solos are typically two to three days. Depending on the needs of the student or other factors such as weather, the solo may be shorter.
Jonathan: During expedition, the team sets up camp together as a group site. The solos take place at “satellite” sites which branch off from the group site. Depending on the level of the solo and the progress of the student, these solo sites are typically a few hundred feet or less away from the group site. Guides can often visually see the sites.
Guides make multiple rounds to solo sites each day. This involves visually putting eyes on the student and, depending on the level of the solo, they may sit down with the student to check in verbally. They may even run a session with the student.
We also have a great “mailbox” system for solos. The “mailbox” allows for students and guides to communicate needs and check-in through writing messages and placing them in the designated “mailbox” near the student’s solo site. The mailbox system allows students to ask for and receive the emotional and physical support they need while not compromising the “solo-ness” of the experience.
As always at Open Sky, we are highly aware of and mindful of weather conditions and the various needs and precautions associated with the elements. We are flexible with the structure and length of the solo when necessary based on the weather.
Students attempt to build their own fires during solos using their bow-drill sets. For some, this can be a powerful intervention in itself: perhaps it is beneficial for them to struggle through failure, to push themselves to try again, and to grow in confidence and empowerment at the success of starting the fire. Of course, guides will always provide fire for them when they aren’t able to get a fire. During the summer in our Colorado course area and often during the daytime in our winter course area, the temperatures are warm and students don’t necessarily need fire. But in cooler temperatures, guides provide fire liberally.
Jonathan: Prior to solos, the therapist sits down with the guide team and discusses each student’s therapeutic goals, wilderness skills, and level of support needed throughout the solo. For each student, the therapist designates his or her distance from the group site, how many daily check-ins they’ll each need, and indicates visual-only or verbal check-ins. Again, this structure is highly flexible and can change depending on how the solo is going for a student.
A student’s solo experience may revolve around a certain theme, whether grief, challenge, empowerment, acceptance, surrender, etc. Students are also given specific solo assignments based on these themes.
The student’s level of independence, trust, and skills determine which “level” of solo assigned, from a “mini solo” to a “master solo”. No matter the level, this is an impactful experience and is often a turning point for students in their progress.
Field guides also help students find meaning and metaphor in the individual experiences they have during their solo. This helps develop and strengthen one’s relationship with oneself via relationship with the wilderness. Students come together and tell stories of what happened, and guides reflect the experience through the lens of the wilderness. For example, one student spoke of a raven that kept returning and cawing continuously as he was reflecting on his relationship with his mother. The guide pointed out that a raven has historically been a symbol of a message. This might make that experience, reflection, and memory more salient. Nature has a beautiful way of customizing the experience for each student, with the poignant synchronicities like this that occur every day.
Jonathan: Some students hate being alone. They say they get bored or depressed—which can be true—but ultimately, it can be because they don’t like themselves or even know themselves. A solo gives them the opportunity to be relationship with themselves; to be courageous and kind toward themselves.
If a student starts to feel bored, this can actually be a good motivator to try new things, reframe one’s thoughts, and discover more about oneself…instead of turning to the social distractions they’re used to filling the empty space with.
Students are tasked with outlining the structure of their solo experience, but we often give them specific journaling assignments, assign a specific book from the Open Sky “library”, or make a sculpture or craft something meaningful out of natural objects, for example. These assignments are designed to keep their mind engaged and help them benefit more from the experience.
Jonathan: What we often see with students who turn to coping mechanisms like isolation and avoidance is that they fill their time and space with distractions like video games, social media, or other things. While it might seem illogical to have someone who isolates go on a solo, this might actually be the first time they’ve spent time alone without distraction. It might be the first time they’ve truly faced their own thoughts and reflected on their past.
One of my favorite things is when a student really surprises the parents—and sometimes even myself—with the way they show up during a solo. I had a student recently who really dealt with a lot of insecurity at home and could never be away from his phone. We were all blown away by how his solo went. Guides told me that whenever they checked in on him, they saw him building and maintaining a robust fire, leading himself in yoga and meditation, reading a book from the library, and in general truly thriving on time spent alone without distraction. He was so relaxed and so confident. He may not have had such an empowering experience had he not spent this time alone on a solo.
And while the solo is designed to be a powerful individual intervention, it will naturally strengthen the team relationships and dynamics as well. Students are excited to join back together and share about their experiences with one another. We will often hold a ceremony after a solo, to honor the important transitions and progress a student has made and create a communal experience around it as well.
Jonathan: The discharge surveys that our students complete consistently tell us that solos are one of the top experiences our students have in the wilderness.
I recently had a call with an alumni student who graduated two years ago. He can still remember every detail of his solo, down to the colors in the sky at sunrise on the last day, when guides arrived and led him in his “East” ceremony.
The solo is an amazing tool in wilderness and there is so much to learn that students can apply to their lives beyond Open Sky. If they are feeling stuck or stagnant later in life and can look back on their solo experience, they may have a different approach to growth and progress. They may be able to more effectively step back, spend some intentional time alone, reflect, and determine how they want to move forward.