Flooded with images of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Houston, Texas, we know that psychological trauma will be an inevitable part of the storm. It is nearly impossible to comprehend the magnitude of pain connected to the grief and loss that the residents of Houston are experiencing. Among some of the most vulnerable victims are children.
Without fail, my clients come to me having lost traction in the world. They are locked into patterns of behavioral stagnation (i.e., narrowed or limited behavioral repertoires), wherein they’ve become disconnected from what they want most in life, aside from relief from psychological pain. The reason most often given to explain this stagnation and paralysis is that they just don’t “feel” like they can move effectively in the world; their feelings of depression and/or anxiety dictate their behavior (or lack thereof). The implicit agreement they’ve made with themselves and the world is that they have to “feel” a certain way before they can act a certain way. “Once my depression/anxiety goes away, then I can live the life I want,” is the underlying agreement or assumption. It becomes an “if only…, then…” situation.“If only my depression would get better, then I could live the life that I want.” I’m reminded that my Zen teacher, Daniel Doen Silberberg, would often talk about this “If only…, then…” approach to the world. He would say, “We live our lives this way: ‘If only… If only… If only… If only….’ Dead.” Doen was referring to our relationships to both our external worlds (e.g., “If only I could have that house or car I want, then my life would be better.”) and our internal worlds (e.g., “If only I could make my depression go away, then I could live the life that I want.”), but it’s particularly poignant and pertinent when considering the impasse that many of my clients have come to in their young lives. Again, the implicit agreement they’ve made is “If only my bad feelings would go away, then I could live the life that I want.” It’s as though they’re waiting for the world-- someone or something--to come along and change their feelings so that they can begin living the lives they want. From this position, until their feelings change, they are doomed to lives of inertia and behavioral stagnation. The absence of “good” feelings (or the “right” feelings) becomes the reason for their paralysis.
One of the most challenging aspects of my job is helping family members understand what it means to do their work. When working with chemical dependency/addiction, the problem is most often pretty clear. Typically, addicts have a slew of consequences and easily observable patterns. The problem is tangible. When it comes to co-addiction, co-dependency, parental anxiety, etc., the problem becomes much more difficult to define. During my first phone call with families of Evoke clients I will say, “The more you treat this as if it is YOUR treatment, the better off this goes. The best thing you can do to help your son is to do your own work.” A common response to this point, “Wait… What? My treatment!? I’m not the one with the problem!”
In an effort to meet clients with compassion and understanding, the mental health industry has made a shift and replaced the often negatively referred to term, Failure-to-Launch, with a more empathetic term, Emerging Adulthood.
In 2003, I became a field instructor at Entrada. I could not have predicted that I would spend the next decade living in Southern Utah and working at the same company, first as an assistant therapist and then as a primary therapist. The truth is that I fell in love with the work and the company. On a weekly basis I had the honor of witnessing profound transformations for young people who initially showed up feeling angry, sad, depressed, anxious, hopeless and the list goes on. I had the privilege of sitting under the stars by a warm fire listening to people courageously tell their story and start to find healing. It often did not feel like work.
About a year ago, I walked in the Oregon State University 2016 commencement ceremony marking the end of a journey to complete my Ph.D.. I later stood in front of a committee to defend my dissertation entitled “Gender Biases in Counselor Supervisor Evaluations of Counselors”. I am incredibly grateful to have been able to work full time and also complete a doctoral degree and it certainly wasn’t easy. Evoke was a tremendous support to me throughout the process, as was my love for the work I do with the girls in the wilderness. The idea to look at gender biases was first born out of my work with adolescent girls, as I have heard countless stories of perceptions of being treated unfairly or expectations being different for them than for their teenage boy counterparts – not to mention my own experiences in the world as a cisgender female. For those that may not know what the term “cisgender” means, it is a gender identity term that means someone whose gender identity matched with their sex assigned at birth. After my initial research exploring the study of gender and reading hundreds of studies on gender discrimination and bias, I discovered there were little to no empirical studies looking at transgender discrimination in counselor supervision and education. Based on this discovery of the glaring gap in the existing research and on my own personal convictions regarding the importance of affirmation, inclusion, and equality my research project was born. Below are the opening paragraphs from the manuscript (Hadeed & Ng, 2017, p. 2):
As a Clinical Assistant for Michael Griffin in Group 3 at Evoke Cascades, I work primarily with young adult males with substance abuse and addiction issues through a 12-step lens.
Burnout! For employees, this is a hot topic in the Wilderness Therapy Industry. Although it is ever prevalent, it is often not given the attention it deserves. I was given the opportunity to address this topic head on at the 2017 OBH Regional Wilderness Symposium, in Asheville, NC, in April. This gathering allows an array of clinicians and other professionals to come together to share research, insights, and explore ideas for improvements industry wide.
The intention for the presentation was to provide an inclusive definition of burnout from both the field staff and management perspective, discuss signs and symptoms, as well as address tangible and intangible methods of employee support leading to staff longevity.
As former field instructors, it was important to myself and my co-presenters to address longevity, due to its prevalence, and the taboo that accompanies discussing the struggles that come with this line of work. So, out of support for our wilderness community, rose the topic of Burnout.
This topic hit close to home, as it was something I personally struggled with toward the end of my time as a field instructor, and more importantly, I struggled to understand the underlying causes. This added to my excitement for the opportunity to present, with my colleagues Mike and Katelyn, qualitative research on the topic gathered from current staff and exit interviews.
We opened with short filmed interview sessions of current field instructors that were asked to elaborate on their experiences in the industry and pinpoint the contributing factors to their feeling recharged or drained from time in the field. The definition of burnout; exhaustion of physical or emotional strength, or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress of frustration, aligned closely with the responses from the field staff.
Themes that came from the interviews included, community and support, self-care, boundaries, feedback, and transparency. These themes were placed into two categories, Signs and Symptoms, and Hazards. The themes were re-framed as signs and symptoms to aid the prevention of burnout. Hazards, to identify the importance in being proactive with prevention.
Signs and Symptoms
If field staff are feeling “stuck”, "burnout”, or a lack of motivation to meet work related goals, and those feelings (and emotions) go unaddressed, it is likely that the feedback provided on performance evaluations will reflect this in the field.
Boundaries. Given the nature of the investment it takes to work in the therapeutic industry it is important for field staff to be able to work through their own struggles separately from work, as well as be able to hold firm boundaries with participants in the program. Fluctuation in an instructor’s ability to perform this task can be a sign of burnout. This can be measured through recorded feedback on evaluations and conversations with instructors regarding their practices in the field. How much vacation are staff taking? This may look different for each instructor, and a deficiency in personal time or excess in vacation requests can be a sign that an employee may have feelings of burnout. When employees are feeling burned out, who are they talking to? As part of feeling supported, field staff mentioned that being able to talk to their supervisors openly and honestly about their feelings of exhaustion, is helpful to their rejuvenation.
Community was mentioned in multiple interview responses. With the amount of time that field staff spend working together, it is almost inevitable that they form a close-knit community and use that as a resource for support. Each individual experience with the community will be different, and what has shown to be helpful in identifying a person’s struggle is a significant change in their interaction with their community, a change in their baseline.
It has been over twenty-two years since I first began working as a wilderness therapist. While the spirit and dedication of practitioners remains the foundation for quality wilderness-based therapy, many things have changed in that time: family support services, clinical sophistication, whole health curriculum, and a dedication to outcome research. Twenty years ago, when we began on our own adventure to establish the new standard in wilderness therapy, we knew that many would follow suit. We often stated, what makes our program great is not what we did yesterday, but what we are willing to imagine for tomorrow. At Evoke, one of our founding principles is our commitment to continually innovate where we see a need.
Group One, our adolescent boy’s group in Evoke's Wilderness program, recently completed another successful trip to Smith Rock State Park for a day of rock climbing.