Should I Pull My Child Out Of School And Send Him To Your Program Or Wait Until The School Year Ends?
A common question from parents at this time of year (Spring) is, "Should I pull my child out of school and send him to your program or wait until the school year ends?"
As with all of these types of questions, I prefer to address the thinking of the question rather than offering simple advice. I will not challenge the 'what' of your decision, only the 'why'. Let's look into the thinking that goes into this decision.
1. I don't want her to get behind in school or have an incomplete this term.
In many cases, the child is already behind in school and so this is more emotional resistance or anxiety on the parents' part. Yet, even in cases where the child is still moving along satisfactorily in school, pulling them out in the middle of the school year sends a clear message about priorities. "Your mental health and well-being come first." We can all think of examples of people that are functional in their job while emotionally and in relationships, they struggle significantly. In substance abuse disorder we might call this "functional alcoholism."
There's a wonderful scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams' character illustrates how our over-emphasis on academic or professional achievement often create a blindness for us to recognize mental health issues. He uses the example of the infamous Uni-Bomber and his academic success, yet it is obvious that this measure is not the critical indicator of a successful life.
I remember a commercial as a child, a public service announcement where a busy father was reading the newspaper while his young son kept nagging him to play. After a couple of interruptions, the father ripped out a page of the newspaper with the image of a world map on it and shred into many pieces. He said to his son, "When you finish putting this back together, I will play with you." After a few short minutes, the young boy returned with the completed project. The father was astonished and asked his son how he did it so quickly.
The son replied, "On the other side of the map was a picture of the family. Once I put the family together, the world all fit together." This sweet story illustrates how when we get the most important fundamental aspects of our lives right then everything falls into place. When we put first things first, we communicate our values. When children get their minds healthy, the rest of it falls into place and they will have no problems reaching their full academic and professional potential. Perhaps the most powerful, and for me personal, example of this is my own adolescence. I was struggling in many ways, including substance abuse and school failure. My mother placed me in treatment, against my will, in the middle of the academic year. Her efforts to help me were unrelenting. Eventually, with treatment and therapy and experience, I was able to get myself clean and back on track emotionally. I re-entered school and started college at 21 years of age, achieved straight A's, graduating early. A doctoral degree followed and the wisdom I gained from treatment might be my most important asset in my personal and professional life. When your child gets his or her life together, everything else will fall into place. Many of our students are bright and once they achieve a healthy mind everything else comes fairly easy after that.
Lastly, related to this objection is the idea that there is a certain track that one truly needs to be on. There's a timeline that we accept as normal. We believe and are tied to many of the traditional markers and rites of passage. We grieve over lost dances and proms, school sports, family vacations, etc. Again, the thinking here is about priorities. I often say to families “I'm not so much interested in this Spring or these Holidays as much I am investing in the Springs Holidays and Summers for the rest of her life. Significant investment, both emotionally and financially, will be well worth it.
2. It seems like a severe reaction.
This is a common concern as many see wilderness therapy as a very invasive intervention. Being so close to it and watching the beautiful healing that occurs in our program, I have a much different perspective. I see that this is one of the happiest times in many of our participants' lives. Many reflect back after leaving the program and long for that feeling of safety, serenity, and community. I often cite my anecdotal polling of our staff to report that at any given time approximately 25% of our field guides are former students. This speaks to the affinity that they develop for the experience.
A few years ago I was touring a residential treatment center. When I was walking through the living room, the host touring me said to the young men assembled watching T.V., "This is Brad, if you don't do what you're supposed to do, you're gonna be sent to his wilderness program." I struggled with this on several levels. I don’t see our program as a punishment, or a last resort. We don't wait until cancer is stage 4 or 5 to begin treatment. Often people use this intervention at the beginning, as a stabilization, an assessment, or an interruption in a crisis. I say to many that a crisis is not the time to make long term decisions, so wilderness therapy is an opportunity to pause and consider the options for the future.
Therapy, when we begin, becomes something different in the end. No matter the reason they begin wilderness, most come to think of it as a place of healing. Many suggest that all young people could benefit from such an experience: a time-out from the stress of the world; a safe place to learn to feel; or a new beginning; a time for parents to understand more clearly their relationship with their child and their struggles.
3. Maybe things will get better.
This is something that every parent will have to answer for themselves, but as I discussed above, wilderness therapy is not a Hail Mary at the end of the game but a chance to assess where we are at in the process. Is it addiction or just experimentation? Is it depression or just normal adolescent angst? What learning differences are there and how do they figure into the situation? All of these questions can be addressed and many participants can finally get the answers they have been asking for months or years. The clarity parents receive during the time in wilderness therapy is itself a great gift and many talk about how it changes their lives and all of their relationships.
To help parents decide for themselves, I often ask them to consider these questions: Is your child a part of the solution at this point? I am not suggesting perfection—But are they willing to try sobriety, therapy, or home interventions that might help with the issues? If the answer is “No,” wilderness therapy might be a helpful step. I call it a therapy accelerator for those already on the road to healing or a therapy jumping springboard for those that are fairly new to the therapeutic process. Experiential therapy in the wilderness is more potent than outpatient talk therapy because it looks at doing rather than saying. Most report that 6-10 weeks in the wilderness is like 6-10 months or more of outpatient therapy.
Perhaps the most important considerations are "What are the risks of too early an intervention versus too late of an intervention?" Too early means they might be upset or think the intervention is irrelevant or parental over-reaction. Too late of an intervention? We can image the worst of consequences in that scenario.
4. I don't want my community to know. Summer enrollment could be more discrete.
Shame and public judgment can be very real barriers for many. There is still so much stigma about mental health and addiction. Yet, we don’t want to reinforce these stigmas by shying away from needed treatment because of “what the neighbors might think.” And my experience after 20 years of doing wilderness therapy is that everyone has someone they love who struggles with mental health or addiction issues and the courageous are willing to do something about it regardless of social judgments. Many report that when they take these steps, people come out of the woodwork to share similar challenges and even participate in similar treatment interventions.
Even well-meaning professionals who don't understand wilderness therapy add to these stigmas. They may have some idea of wilderness therapy from old talk shows or “scared straight” programs rather than the modern wilderness therapy with psychiatry, sophisticated clinical treatment, and robust family programming. I had an anxious client considering a refresher in the program, warned by his psychiatrist that "he wasn't sick" and "doesn't want to surround himself with others with the most severe disorders." After several discussions with him, he decided to re-enroll and when we talked after his first couple of weeks, he reported, "I am not my disorder nor am I 'sick'. And neither are any of these guys. They are my people. They are struggling and needing a safe place to sort out some challenges. I love my peers and we love this place."
I work in wilderness therapy because I have never seen a more powerful intervention. I have never seen a safer place, with more therapeutic support for young people to heal. I am grateful to be able to witness brave parents and their children as they walk into the proverbial woods and embark on their journey towards authenticity. When my children were young, I struggled to explain what I did at work. I finally settled on "I work with sad boys in the mountains and help them to be happy." While this oversimplification misses so much of the clinical sophistication and nuances of modern wilderness therapy, it is essentially on point. We take people out to the wilderness and teach them how to feel. This capacity to feel removes the need for self-medication and symptoms which serve to mask difficult feelings. Our intervention beckons young people out of isolation and suffering and into authentic connection with themselves and others. There is no better time to start this process or for a parent to send the message that nothing is more important, nothing is a greater priority than wholeness and emotional well-being.