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Therapist, Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC, Answers Young Adults’ Frequently Asked Questions About Wilderness Therapy

Therapist Mariah Loftin in session with young adult student at Open Sky

Q: What’s the benefit of being in the wilderness? Why not just see a home therapist?

A: One of the reasons I chose to be a wilderness therapist is because the wilderness setting offers so many unique growth opportunities and constant support that just isn’t found in a traditional office setting. A benefit of wilderness is that instead of returning after a session to the same ruts, patterns, social pressures, and/or addictions in your life, you are immersed in a supportive and healthy environment, which leads to lasting change.

While outpatient therapy is conceptual, wilderness therapy is experiential. For example, let’s say you struggle with anxiety. Rather than practicing a skill while imagining a time you were anxious, we are able to practice those skills together in real time. Whether hiking, leading a group, or learning to make fire, when anxiety comes up, we work on it then and there. By practicing coping skills when an issue is present, these skills become healthy habits. In wilderness, there are far more opportunities to repeat those healthy habits, which means you are developing skills you can take with you following Open Sky. This is part of what makes wilderness therapy the most effective treatment I’ve seen.

Therapist Mariah Loftin in session with young adult client outdoors - a benefit of wilderness.

Wilderness therapy also provides the highest level of emotional safety that I’ve seen. It is a place people can come to heal and grow. You learn how to be aware of your emotions and talk about what you are feeling. You learn to allow others to support you and how to support others. We teach communication skills that support you learning how to talk about hard things with others. These communication skills will also support healthy change in your family and personal relationships at home. What I’ve found is that when you feel connected and supported in a group, this can help you work through anxiety and practice different ways of changing and growing. It can even alleviate depression.

During your time at Open Sky, it is essential that you and I collaborate on the goals you want to reach. Treatment is individualized to each student so that you receive the support you need. There is no cookie-cutter way of going through Open Sky. I can support you in group settings and one-on-one; through writing, reading, or forms of art; by learning tangible skills you can take home with you; by developing confidence through hiking and mastering hard skills; and by becoming a mentor and leader for peers. Though the rhythm of each day is different depending on individual and group needs, therapy is woven into every aspect of your experience. The therapy is happening all the time, not just while in one-on-one sessions. There are so many opportunities to practice new skills, which is what ultimately results in change. And you don’t go through this alone. You have all the support you need from therapists, field guides, and peers.

Q: What are some creative ways that you work with students in wilderness therapy?

A: I am an artist. I value creativity. I love to weave this passion into my work with you if it is effective and beneficial for your individual needs. I get excited when my students get excited about their own change, which often occurs by exploring nontraditional/creative forms of therapy. That may be listening to podcasts, writing or performing music or drama, reading a book, drawing, sculpting, and more. It’s all about inspiring people to become invested in themselves and their personal healing. Creativity can encourage someone to take risks within a supportive community, develop confidence, and see their struggles and achievements in a new light.

Open Sky student plays music, a benefit of wilderness.

Q: What types of therapeutic groups do you lead?

A: I love spending time with my group. Sometimes we will start a group off with a podcast, listen to music, or answer a deeper question about the week. I want to encourage my students to look at the ways they can be empowered to change their lives. An example of this is examining how our behaviors have or haven’t lined up with our values. We start off by exploring the negative beliefs we have about ourselves that drive negative emotions. How do these emotions produce behaviors that don’t line up with our values? We support each other in developing ways to interrupt that negative belief cycle. We then reinforce positive beliefs that produce positive emotions and therefore behaviors that do align with one’s values.

Q: How is my family involved?

A: Often, a goal is working on your relationship and communication with your family. Our work at Open Sky does not only have to be about your own growth; it can also be about the growth of your whole family. I support you and your parents communicating through letters, phone calls, and face-to-face. By practicing new skills together, your family can begin to grow and repair your relationships. Our Family Services Team offers other helpful services to families like Parent Coaching, Wellness Weekends, Parent Support Group Calls, Family QuestsTM, and more. Our goal is to support parents in learning the skills and putting in their own work in a process parallel to yours.

Q: The wilderness is far away and unfamiliar to me. How can this be the right setting for me?

A: By taking good care of yourself, in whatever context, you are supporting your own growth. And yes, this looks different in the wilderness than it does at home. We teach you wilderness skills to stay warm, dry, and hydrated. Myself, the field staff, and your peers provide constant support in all of this. Each time you take a step to care for yourself in these basic and more complex ways, you are developing self-reliance, which helps you prepare to reach your goals.

Sign says "be kind to yourself"

An inherent aspect of wilderness therapy is task completion. Building shelters, journaling, packing backpacks, cooking, practicing mindfulness, completing therapeutic assignments, and bow-drilling fires all support you feeling better because you are “taking care of business” (developing healthy habits). Research shows that through completing tasks, we start to feel accomplished and confident. We develop a sense of mastery, which in and of itself helps people feel better. There are endless ways to experience this in wilderness, especially if it is initially an unfamiliar environment!

We never expect anyone to be self-sufficient and know everything about living in the wilderness from the start. When students first arrive, they are mentored by peers and guides. You can read in the Student Pathway (a helpful resource you are given upon arrival) about skills such as carving a spoon and layering to stay warm, but most importantly, you learn through observation, teamwork, and practice. You are capable of thriving in the wilderness. As you develop skills and progress in your work, you become a senior student and step into a mentorship role for others—another huge step in your growth.

And finally, the wilderness is a great environment to make real, lasting change because of its inherent simplicity, lack of distractions, and peace. You don’t have the pressures of social media, demanding schedules, or harmful relationships. You are able to focus solely on healing within a supportive environment. You will be amazed at the beauty you witness and the intricate ways that nature unfolds throughout the weeks you are here. I am always struck by what we can learn about ourselves and the world just by observing the constellations and their movements in the sky and experiencing the change of seasons in its purest form.


Mariah expands on this conversation in her SKYlights Podcast episode HERE.

December 31st, 2018

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults