Therapeutic Excellence in an Integrated Role: A Q&A With Therapist Mary Zaunbrecher
Mary Zaunbrecher, MS, LPC | Clinical & Family Services Therapist
Mary Zaunbrecher, MS, LPC is a therapist for students and families on both the Clinical and Family Services Teams. In this integrated role, Mary works with students in the field, provides clinical coverage for primary therapists, and comes alongside families through our variety of family services. In the Q&A below, learn more about Mary’s clinical expertise, her approach to working with students and with families, and her passion for wilderness therapy.
A: I spent my childhood roaming around our family farm in Louisiana, camping, fishing, and kayaking the swamps. Looking back, that was an unparalleled time of connection, reflection, exploration, and tremendous learning. Growing up immersed in nature had a profound impact on me. This impact is the foundation of my passion for wilderness therapy.
While pursuing a Master of Science in Counselor Education, I worked in a traditional rehab setting. From then on, I knew I wanted to reach outside the boundary of traditional talk therapy. I wanted to implement what I learned about addiction within a more personal and growth-oriented model (as opposed to a model based merely on cessation). I gained experience in art and play therapies, and later learned about wilderness therapy from a mentor. Once I discovered wilderness therapy I never looked back.
I was drawn to the power of therapy within a nature setting, free from the distractions of technology, substances, and social pressures. My passion for this work has grown exponentially since then. The Open Sky model inherently helps students get to a place where they can truly strengthen their skills and deepen their personal work that I haven’t seen in other settings. The accountability and relational skills fostered through the community of the team, guides, and therapist are invaluable. As I collaborate with the students on individual treatment goals, I have confidence in our guides, who are ever-present throughout the week to carry out these goals. I’m grateful for the wilderness itself—my co-therapist—in the way it promotes growth and empowerment. And, perhaps most significantly, I’m deeply passionate about the experiential learning that occurs for students, which I believe is the most powerful form of learning.
I have met students who have never spent a single night outdoors or away from a screen in their life. They come in resistant and apprehensive. It’s remarkable to see their attitude transform and witness them becoming invested in the process. They quickly recognize how much of their life has been spent not connecting in genuine ways and not nurturing authentic relationships. The authenticity in the peer relationships they form out here is instrumental to their growth. Not to mention, they end up loving to sleep beneath the stars, building fire with bow drills, and witnessing the sun set over the mountain peaks. I’m inspired daily in this work. It’s so fulfilling to watch students become “Leaders of the Day,” mentors to new students, and overall confident in their ability to take care of themselves without the use of substances, electronics, defiance, or isolation.
A: As a therapist for both the Family Services Team and Clinical Team, I work with students in the field, provide clinical coverage, and support families through Parent Coaching and the Family QuestTM experience.
This integrated role really informs the ways I can best set families up for success through the Open Sky model. I’ve worked in other wilderness and residential settings and we truly do have the premier family-centered model. The amount of family work we do and services we offer is powerful. This is the best way for families and students to integrate the skills and progress together long-term.
My role enhances the work of the extended treatment team through the fresh perspectives I can bring from one department and population to another. As a Family QuestTM facilitator, I have the chance to see families come together and work through the challenges that come up in real-time. I support each family member as they implement the skills they’ve worked on independently up to that moment. I understand both ends of the process, the student experience, and the depth and breadth of work that can be done through our family work. I’ve honed the skill of identifying family patterns, dynamics, roles, and history and integrate that knowledge into a treatment plan for the student or a wellness plan for a parent.
My role also benefits our clients by providing seamless coverage for therapists when they take time off for their own self-care, family relationships, and recharging. Open Sky has developed our coverage process in the way that best supports our students, families, and staff. I’m grateful to support our clinicians in practicing the things that we ask parents and students to do every day.
A: I take a very relational approach, role modeling authenticity and transparency. I meet students where they’re at. What I mean by that is, I take into account the individual’s history, which informs their readiness to change. I adjust my style and approach depending on whether the individual has worked on these patterns and dynamics in the past with other forms of treatment or is working through certain issues and patterns for the first time. My time working in substance use rehab informs my straightforward approach founded on honesty, accountability, and actionable goals.
My approach is highly individualized and adaptable to the needs of the person in front of me. For instance, I often use a strengths-based approach for students who are struggling with issues of self-esteem and self-efficacy. I incorporate an artistic/creative therapeutic approach for students who learn visually. For those who struggle to tap into their heart and body, I focus on incorporating mindfulness and somatic techniques. For those struggling with regulating emotions and fostering healthy relationships, I may use a DBT approach.
I continually seek out education and training in the most recent research-proven therapeutic modalities. Most recently, I received training in Brainspotting, a neuro-biological tool for resolving trauma and stress.
Through my treatment approach, the invaluable work of field guides, and the inherent benefits of being in nature, students become invested in the healing process. It’s powerful and rewarding to see each family’s transformation and growth from week to week:
From feeling apprehensive about living outdoors to feeling empowered by busting a fire and building a shelter… From isolating from the team to recognizing the power of connection and community and learning how these are intertwined with their symptoms… From dreading getting out of the sleeping bag to completing a hiking expedition, feeling energized physically, and feeling more connected mentally, emotionally, and spiritually… From projecting anger and blame for being here to discovering their own agency in the growth and change process… From utilizing negative coping mechanisms to building the tools they can take with them in the next steps after Open Sky…
I never tire from seeing these transformations time and time again!
A: What I value most is that through the variety of services we offer, we can truly invite our parents to partake in a parallel journey alongside their child. It is about learning the skills and tools to use with each other and deepening a connection with themselves.
I find it rewarding during the Family QuestTM intensive to see families experience a taste of what the students do on a day-to-day basis living in the wilderness. It’s also notable that parents often go through a similar emotional process to their child: perhaps experiencing feelings of apprehension at the start, discomfort with practicing new skills, determination in mastering those skills, empowerment through accomplishments, and pride in the hard work and achievement. This parallel emotional process is an important avenue of connection for parents and students as well.
I also find great value through connecting with families and family members of all backgrounds, family make-ups, and dynamics. Just as we don’t treat just one type of student profile, we don’t work with just one type of family profile. I meet each family where it’s at in the change process, just as I mentioned before with the students. We can engage both the student and their families in a similar process with the intention of bringing them together in ways that are more meaningful and productive to long-term progress.
A: One of my favorite ways to spend my free time is through cooking. It’s a very meditative process for me and is a creative way for me to connect with my Louisiana roots and family heritage. It also fosters community because I’m always inviting friends and loved ones over to enjoy the results!
I enjoy reading and listening to podcasts and enriching my knowledge of the world, people, cultures, and different patterns of thought. The learning, challenge, and creativity I pursue in my free time definitely broadens the scope of my practice and facilitates a sort of “collaboration” with expert minds outside of my direct field of practice.
I also spend a lot of my free time exploring outdoors with friends and my labradoodle Fenway. We constantly seek adventure in our Durango backyard and throughout the Four Corners region. Since moving from the South out here to the mountains, I’ve consciously pursued new challenges and experiences, pushing my growth edge and discovering my strengths. This is important to me in role modeling what I ask of my students and families every day—trying something for the first time; stepping out of our comfort zones.