Contact Us| Careers Parent Portal

Walking the Path Together: A Conversation with Young Adults Clinical Therapist, Dr. Aaron Wallis

Aaron Wallis, Ph.D, LP | Clinical Therapist | Young Adults

Featured Team Members: Aaron Wallis, Ph.D, LP

Young Adults Clinical Therapist Aaron Wallis, PhD, LP

Q: What inspires you the most about working in wilderness therapy? Why did you pursue this career?

A: I am inspired every day by my young adult clients. Many of them are out there doing one of the most challenging things they’ve ever done. They not only grow through learning the hard skills of living in the wilderness but also through confronting themselves, living in community within the team, and facing their fears and challenges head-on. I see my clients grow in confidence, emotional awareness, assertive communication, grit…the list goes on. Day in and day out, they work with courage and determination to seek healing and change. I love being part of that work and their process.

Another inspiring aspect of my work is seeing the role that the wilderness itself plays in the process. Wilderness creates unique opportunities to confront oneself in real and meaningful ways, with inherent rewards and natural consequences. Treatment in this setting seamlessly combines the hard-skill aspects of living outdoors with the soft-skill aspects of therapy. These are benefits that simply can’t be replicated in outpatient therapy. With wilderness as a co-therapist, I see clients reach more meaningful and long-term change.

Student meditates on rock at Open Sky in Utah.

I wanted to be a psychologist for a very long time. In fact, I remember deciding to become a psychologist at the end of elementary school. Growing up in a military family, I traveled often and met lots of people. I became fascinated with others and their stories. I found I really enjoyed connecting with people and helping when I could.

Part of what keeps me fascinated with this work is that people are the most amazing puzzles. However, my work as a wilderness therapist is not about “solving” the puzzle and changing people. It’s about helping each of my young adult clients and family members understand himself or herself better and begin to understand each other. This understanding will ultimately empower them to bring about their own healthy change as individuals and as a family.

Wilderness therapy is a key piece of my own personal puzzle—I never knew how important it would become to me. I love that the wilderness is my office; that I can share its beauty and its therapeutic value with others every week. In it, I find inspiration for my own life and relationships. I am passionate about the ways the wilderness motivates, strengthens, challenges, comforts, and inspires each person that enters it.

Q: What are your strengths as a Clinical Therapist at Open Sky?

A: One of my strengths is the way I am able to relate to my young adult clients on their level and respect them as individuals with incredible potential. I constantly seek to understand the unique struggles that they face and provide guidance to help them begin to thrive.

I want my clients to truly understand what is going on for them and become invested in their treatment. So, conveying information in ways that are accessible and digestible is absolutely vital. This means my job isn’t simply explaining the science of an issue or research behind a certain topic. It’s about understanding what each person’s actual experience is like. It’s about listening and validating; respecting and encouraging.

As I said, each of my clients is an individual with unique circumstances and incredible potential. My hope is to help them recognize this, remove self-judgment, and gain new ways of coping with their challenges.

Therapy group with Dr. Aaron Wallis at Open Sky Wilderness Utah base camp.

Q: What is your clinical approach? And how do you establish trust and build connection with your clients and families?

A: I was trained as a generalist, meaning I was exposed to many therapeutic orientations. I make conscious efforts to keep up with developments in neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology, making sure what I was trained on is still relevant. What I most often turn to is ITP: interpersonal process in therapy. Essentially, this theory believes that we are all trying to cope with some form of distress and the ways we choose to cope are often helpful at first but can become distorted or toxic over time. As a therapist, my job is to help my clients first understand and then break that cycle through a caring, interpersonal relationship. Together, we have the chance to provide experiences that help form new understandings and habits that better serve us.

My first steps when working with a new client or family is to try to break down as much of that therapeutic authority barrier that I can. It’s important that they see me as someone literally on the ground with them, willing to help. I relate to them as a fellow human; someone who is walking the path of healing with them. This is what I truly love about the job—coming alongside each person as they seek to strengthen their relationships and live in line with their values, just like Open Sky’s mission states.

Dr. Aaron Wallis in therapy session with young adult student

My approach is to consider and balance a client’s real-life experience within the larger context of what is happening around them socially, emotionally, culturally, and neurologically. I do this by seeking to understand them and their expertise first. I tie what they are saying into what I’m observing, making sure we’re on the same page.

It’s so exciting to witness this process. When clients and families come to Open Sky and start to grasp onto their potential, find hope, and feel better…these are the moments that fill me up and keep me in this line of work. It is powerful and humbling. I know it’s a long journey; it is special to play a part in it.

Q: What do you value most about Open Sky’s family-centered approach? What are some ways this approach has benefitted your clients?

A: One of the frustrations I had in my outpatient work before Open Sky was seeing my clients, who had made positive change, return to their family system and find themselves falling back into the same negative patterns. If the family system hadn’t also changed, the client’s progress was likely to fade.

At Open Sky, we don’t just focus on the identified patient (that is, the adolescent or young adult). Our family-centered approach empowers entire families to heal and grow together, therefore gaining the ability to support the client’s change.

Every effort made by anyone within the family system has the potential to snowball into tremendous growth. If a client sees a parent making efforts to change, that client is more likely to challenge himself or herself to do better, and vice versa. It’s exciting to see families come together and motivate each other in this way.

It is especially impactful when family members feel empowered to give feedback directly and receive it gracefully. This is what initiates a true shift in a family system. This type of communication and care within the family, given assertively and received humbly, is more powerful and fruitful than anything I could ever do or say. It helps everyone understand each other better and encourages lasting change.

Young adult student and his parents on Family Quest at Open Sky

I receive emails from alumni parents stating that the family is still practicing what they learned at Open Sky through working with me, attending Wellness Weekend, and participating in Parent Coaching or Family Quest. This gives me confidence that what we teach families works during their time with Open Sky and long after.

Q: What are your passions outside of work?

A: I love spending time with my wife and my dogs. I like camping and hiking, kayaking and fishing. (Though, I’m not quite as good at fishing as I’d like to be!) I like to barbeque and cook. I also play video games. In fact, this interest helps me understand some of my clients better and model what it’s like to be an adult with a career who enjoys video games. This is possible!

January 21st, 2019

Aaron Wallis, Ph.D, LP | Clinical Therapist | Young Adults