Durango facility Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, founded in 2006, takes troubled teens and young adults into the wild for therapeutic treatment. Multiple Adventure Education students from Fort Lewis College have either interned with or gone on to work for Open Sky after graduation. We chatted with Danny Frazer, Admissions and Business Development director, about what the job entails.
What does “wilderness therapy” mean?You use what the wilderness provides – a place that’s unpredictable, that has stressors, but also beauty and serenity, things both challenging and nurturing. Then you take young people who are struggling, 13- to 28-year-olds, and couple them with licensed, trained clinicians. It’s not just talking conceptually, it’s actually seeing how they handle setbacks. Maybe their job is to make fire, but it rained a lot today. How do they handle the frustration? We’re going to observe. It’s a great place to see true colors, the good, the bad and the ugly – then intervene and provide coaching or mentorship guidance to redirect them. We’re trying to make them express themselves in healthy, assertive ways, solve problems and resolve feelings. They come to us not being able to do those things, with maladaptive coping patterns.
What kind of clients come to Open Sky? Our students are all clinically resistant; the tried and true has been ineffective. Psychotropic meds, individual therapy, family therapy, you name it – the usual isn’t working. That could be because of grief and loss; that’s heavy stuff they don’t want to get into. We see depression, anxiety, substance abuse.
What are the differences from traditional rehab or “talk therapy”?Talk therapy is probably most successful with those who are motivated to get into stuff; it takes a lot of courage to face fears, anxieties and strong feelings. In the wilderness environment, we tend to see those who are resistant to that approach, because of fear, guilt, shame, trauma, abandonment, rejection. The wilderness has a way of softening people up. You’re with a group of people who are going to endure the same challenges as you. There’s this cohesion and bond that happens. We’re able to create an atmosphere that generates positive affection for others, reliance on each other, more trust. Then that trust extends to being more willing to be open and vulnerable in therapy. Kids that are resistant can hold it together for an hour in talk therapy, they can dodge things. [Traditional] therapy is also very one-sided; the professional sits on their chair. In this case, we’re all living together, so there’s an equalizing effect. It’s snowing on her and on me, our hands are cold and we’re frustrated trying to tie her tarp down, so there’s more of a chance for that human connection.
What kind of jobs can Ad Ed graduates get with Open Sky?We’ve employed several Ad Ed graduates. Most of them come to work for us as field guides, an entry-level position that’s the heart and soul of what we do. Those are the staff who work a week at a time, living out on the field with these young people. They’re delivering the core therapeutic elements, guided by the licensed therapists, and also wilderness skills. They’re the ones teaching them map reading, camp craft, risk management, all while contending with behavioral issues and emotional outbursts.
Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldThis interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.