Wilderness therapy benefits troubled teens, but what about parents? – Andrew Russell

Last light on the mountains
Last light on the mountains
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It’s amazing what time in the wilderness can do. When we first met A, she was nervous, suspicious and clearly intent on ­keeping us at arm’s length. She’d come to us as part of our Venture Mòr Wilderness Therapy programme – offered to young people who are ­having trouble engaging with or accessing mainstream services and who want to make sense of what’s going on for them emotionally.

Venture Mòr is a social enterprise owned by parent charity Venture Trust offering wilderness therapy programmes in the Highlands – and for A it was an eye-opener: “I have never been able to be so open and talk so freely in my life and to talk about it with you is just brilliant. I’ve been holding a lot in for years and I’ve finally been able to talk about it.” A’s reaction is by no means unusual, arriving for two weeks in the middle of nowhere – with no phone! – with a group of people you don’t know, who encourage you talk about your ­innermost feelings, can be an overwhelming prospect. For a lot of young people, attending the programme may be more their parents’ idea than theirs. Participants might arrive ­feeling reluctant, antagonistic, defensive, sullen or angry. Which is perfectly rational, frankly.

Two weeks later change is in the air. A key is the relational approach our multi-talented and dedicated staff takes. Often the experience of immersion in the wilderness is also stated as a compelling therapeutic environment. Literal distance from your problems lets you see them in perspective. The lack of distractions brings focus. The simple challenges – getting from A to B and then ­preparing a meal – provide a chance for self-reflection.

People in the UK are becoming conscious of the idea that the ­outdoors can be harnessed as a therapeutic environment. In Shetland, your doctor might prescribe a dose of nature as an alternative, or in addition to medicine. A recent study by the University of Exeter has shown that spending two hours a week in natural settings has a positive effect on both health and on mental well-being – and this is just as true for ­people ­living in deprived areas as it for those with easy access to leafy green spaces.

When we couple the ­benefits of spending time in the ­outdoors with a team of skilled, ­qualified practitioners delivering individual and group therapy, it can have a swift and significant impact on an individual’s sense of themselves.

But why should these benefits be restricted to teens? For many, ­family relationships are seen as a part of their difficulties. That cuts both ways. The stress of a frayed relationship with a child obviously has an impact on parents’ own mental well-being – momentum builds around bad feelings, and healing that relationship becomes ever harder. If wilderness therapy helps teens – and it does – we are confident it will help parents too.

By supporting the whole family, we give everyone a ­better chance to reflect on their own behaviours, ­recognise ­patterns and trigger points in their relationships, and begin to make sustainable changes.

Our first course for parents has just launched, but most busy ­parents wouldn’t be able to free themselves up for a two-week programme. Instead, we’ve developed an intense four-day course that will run over a long weekend to make it as accessible as possible.

Our aims are to give parents respite from the day-to-day stresses, and to reflect on their relationship with ­parenthood and what that means for the relationships with their children; what they love about them and what could work better. We will provide support and opportunities for ­honest, sometimes challenging reflection. Change is a process, not a destination and seeing a parent ­committing to exploring their own process may well be the encouragement a child needs to consider doing the same. This approach is one that we recommend is pursued more widely. Scotland’s services for people trying to overcome a troubled past are still on the path to becoming ­person-centred; too many people find themselves bounced from one service to another without any sense of an overall plan, or that they are seen as a person rather than a series of problems to be solved.

But progress is being made. We should be moving boldly towards a more relational and systemic appreciation; considering all the relationships and influences that affect people, we can build our services to address the reality of each unique and complex social eco-system. For now, we invite any parents to join us as we offer a chance to breathe and think.

Andrew Russell is head of ­programme performance and impact at Venture Trust and ­Venture Mòr.