The Hughes family stands in a circle with joined hands. A variety of emotions play across the features of each, from sullen reluctance to hopeful anticipation.
There's really nothing that unusual about a family sharing the pleasure of a warm, sunny day in the park. But this outing has a purpose. This family is experiencing what one researcher has referred to as "outdoor behavioral health care."
Although generally referred to as adventure therapy, or AT, this nontraditional approach to counseling is centered on activity-based treatment as opposed to more clinical, in-office dialogue. Designed to be both instructive and fun, adventure therapy is a holistic approach that engages people in planned, therapeutic situations involving team games and problem-solving exercises. Practitioners say that even the most resistant find themselves drawn into the plan.
"Therapeutic adventure has been around a long time, but AT as a discipline is a much more recent concept, and a lot of people don't really understand exactly what it means," says Scott Bandoroff, local therapist, author and owner of Peak Experience in Ashland.
"For it to be 'adventure therapy,' we're talking about having a very clear therapeutic intent, usually with some kind of treatment goals, if not for the individual, then certainly for the group, and generally having a therapist involved with the design or program supervision," explains Bandoroff.
Although many variations on the "adventure" theme exist, it is generally separated into three strands. The first is activity-based psychotherapy, usually short-term and local. The second is wilderness therapy, which ranges from a week to a month in a remote area, and the third is long-term, residential camping, where participants provide much of their own food and shelter.
AT is not seen as replacing more established methods of psychotherapy, but rather as an alternative or addition to more conventional methods. It has proved to be very effective in addressing a wide range of challenging clientele, including juveniles, substance abusers, survivors of sexual abuse and those who suffer from post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.
The power behind this activity-based approach is that it engages clients mentally, emotionally and physically. In more typical formats, the therapist hopes that through guided dialogue, the client draws certain conclusions and is led to enlightened, behavior-changing realizations. With AT, physical challenges help clients move toward increased self-awareness, which opens the door to a clearer understanding of behavior, choices and consequences.
Therapist Melody Reed of Scenic River Retreat in Grants Pass sees adventure therapy as an effective equalizer.
"I think AT is a good way to universalize our challenges, our difficulties, as opposed to therapy sessions where we're addressing individual problems or issues," Reed says. "In the clinical setting, as much as you may try to downplay the status differential, we bring people into 'our' office and have them sit in a specific chair; but outdoors, that person is learning about themselves, not depending on someone else.
"Out in the open, they're doing an activity that shows them that this is what all people struggle with, and some of the ways to overcome. It demonstrates that, 'Oh, I'm not so different; I'm really like everyone else when it comes to struggling with life's problems or issues.' "
"For instance in rock climbing, you're challenging yourself, just like you're asking them to do, or on the river, you're all sharing a whitewater experience."
So what does the Hughes family learn from entangling themselves in a human knot and then having to strategize and work cooperatively to get themselves untangled?
In order to succeed, clients have to utilize creative problem-solving and cooperation skills and effective communication. AT, through its design strategy, provides a realistic profile of an individual's strengths, weaknesses and imagined limitations. This realistic, "put-yourself-to-the-test" experience ultimately results in improved decision-making abilities and coping strategies.
"One of the biggest advantages over traditional therapy is that we're taking esoteric concepts like trust, communication and cooperation, which are really hard to get a handle on — they're pretty intangible — and we're turning those concepts into 'ing' words like 'listening,' 'trusting' and 'cooperating,' " explains Bandoroff.
"Then we're taking those words and talking about what happened and how that experience felt for them. It takes it out of the intellectual realm and into a grounded, right-in-your-face kind of experience that they can process."
Proponents of AT feel that clients also learn "healthier coping strategies, leading to increased environmental control." A powerful component of these physical exercises is that clients see tangible proof of success, which leads to an improved self-image.
"During physical activities, we test ourselves; we learn our capacities, our strengths, our tolerances, our stamina, our limits, and we exercise our ability to problem-solve. Without that, we never build our confidence level by learning what we're really capable of," says Reed.
When it comes to a personal-growth experience, sometimes it's as simple as a talk in the park.