Featured Team Members: Julia Lehr, MSSW, CSW, AMFT
In the Q&A below, get to know Julia Lehr, therapist at Open Sky!
Mental health has always been a part of my life. There are mental health issues in my family, as well as with some of my friends, so I grew up witnessing the suffering that people endure as a result. I became passionate about alleviating that suffering and supporting people in doing that for themselves.
I grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina, right outside of Asheville, and did my undergraduate studies there. When I first graduated college, I worked at a therapeutic boarding school for adolescent girls age 10 through 14. That was my first significant experience working with mental health issues, and seeing what those issues look like at a young age was very impactful for me. Watching them engage in different modalities like yoga and grow through their relationships with their mentors and milieu created a lot of hope for me and connected me to this type of work.
I’ve had a lot of experience working in the realm of mental health in a variety of different settings, whether it was pretty significant in-patient work at a therapeutic boarding school or working with mental health, behavioral, and interpersonal issues within middle schools that were being untreated because of a lack of resources.
While working in the middle school setting, I was really interested in getting outside of the classroom. I saw that a lot of the students I worked with would zone out or tune out in the classroom, but when we worked outside on different field trips, things were different. They were a lot more alive and present and motivated. I started thinking about how to incorporate more of that into my work, and wilderness came up through the research I was doing to broaden my understanding.
I went back to school at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and got a master’s in social work. I really wanted to work on micro practice and individual family therapy rather than policy and program development. That led me to specialize in couples and family therapy and I became dually licensed as a social worker and family therapist.
Through that program, I understood in deeper ways the value of including families and what that means for long-lasting change. Oftentimes, through poor mental health, people tend to become really isolated from their social networks and families, and that creates even more suffering and distress. I became interested in how family units can wrap around someone who is suffering and support them in a way that creates healing and change, not only for them but for the entire system that they’re in. Because usually, it’s not that person alone who’s struggling.
When I looked at different research related to wilderness therapy, it seemed pretty clear that it’s important to do the family work. That eventually got me to Open Sky for the way the program includes families through phone calls, Wellness Weekend, Family Quests, and parent work. Open Sky is really working to support the entire system and not just the individual, so whenever they do transition on from Open Sky, they can have greater potential for success.
Coming from the family therapy background, I have knowledge and experience with various models, so I’ll look at what the client needs and then create an integrated approach. Typically, I’ll operate from experiential models, such as emotion-focused therapy (EFT) or concepts of internal family systems (IFS).
Within the wilderness setting, I use the wilderness as my co-therapist. I also use the group and guides as co-therapists. So much of the change that happens is through the relationships that students build while they’re in the program. That’s what really drew me to wilderness. Through different experiences, I’ve noticed how significant that change is because it is very much in the present moment. Students create lasting memories so that later when they think back to the time they spent at Open Sky, it feels a little more concrete for them. The “aha” moments become more significant and magnified in wilderness.
I also love to lead mindfulness activities within the group to approach whatever students are holding onto in a way that simply observes it rather than resists it. Sometimes I’ll have each student lead us in a different yoga posture as a way to invite them to slow down, practice speaking within a group, use their voice, and notice what is happening in their body and the emotions that are coming up. We also focus on the breath as a way to bring more awareness to their internal world.
I am a very creative person. I don’t have one modality that I like to go to, so usually it’s whatever I feel inspired by in the moment. Sometimes it can be making a pillow through sewing different fabrics together, or it could be working on a spoon or a gift for someone. Ceremony and how to create ceremony have been a big part of my wilderness therapy practice, so that leads into the maker side of things.
Recently in the field, a student was very excited about showing me their bow for their bow drill set. They really took a lot of time to sand their bow and carve little holes to put cord through so it’s easier to adjust. They put oil on it to really make the woodgrain come out. For certain students, having that passion and creativity can provide a lot of ownership over their experience and meaning.
For other students, that doesn’t come as naturally. In the field we talk about core negative beliefs students may have. I notice that a lot of times in art, core negative beliefs come up. Some students are very resistant because they think, well, what does it mean about me if I can’t make this wonderful, beautiful bow drill set? They’ll try to make something mediocre so they can easily say, “Oh, well, I didn’t really try that hard. It doesn’t mean that much to me.” It’s not necessarily about having the students push those core negative beliefs away. It’s about understanding them, developing a greater relationship with them, and learning how they influence choices in life. It’s about asking, how are you showing up today? How are you letting things slide and not really putting yourself out there to make mistakes and learn new things? And then how are you coming back to create something different?
I have two dogs that are a great part of my personal life. They’re how I find joy and curiosity, and I love observing how they’re interacting with the natural environment when we’re hiking or trail running. Just being outside with them provides some of my happiest moments. They fuel my passion to take time to slow down and be in nature and appreciate what is around me.
One of my dogs, Ezra, has been seeing clients with me for probably three years. I used to do a lot of animal-assisted work with adolescents and incorporated her in that. She’s super sensitive and having her there is a great way for the younger students to talk about personal boundaries and how to pick up on social cues. Oftentimes, kids are coming into wilderness therapy with a high level of impulsivity and aggression. They’re very motivated by a furry, cute thing and want to develop a relationship with the dog. A lot of what I do is working on attachment with students, so whether I have Ezra with me or I’m just talking about animals in general, it’s a way to get to that attachment piece with resistant clients who are distrustful of adults or relationships.
Also, Ezra is a rescue, so I talk about some of the things she first struggled with when I rescued her, such as separation anxiety, and how she was able to work on herself, build a relationship with me, move past that, and heal. I then ask students things like, have you noticed this within yourself, or how can you relate to this story? It’s a very gentle way of talking about some hard issues.