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Posted January 24, 2002 

Therapeutic Expeditions

Lehi, Utah
Brad Matheson, Director of Admissions

[Lon's Visit on March 28, 2002]

The boys group I visited at Walkabout was camped in a clump of trees on a ridge overlooking a vast valley rimmed by snow topped mountains. Pausing a moment to get the feel of the wilderness, I listened to the lonely moaning of the wind in the scrub trees and watched a golden eagle circle overhead, putting on a show in its search for prey. The memory of these images and the feelings that the wilderness invoked in me as I stood there gave me a sense of the impact this environment could have on a new student. Removing the student from an unhappy and manipulative situation and bringing him or her face to face with nature, the ultimate reality of this world, offers the student a whole new perspective.

The boys then joined us and we circled up with this majestic scene as a backdrop. But hearing of the personal stories of the struggles, frustrations, failures and fears these young men had been going through in their attempts to grow up in modern civilization brought us down to earth. The new group members had very little to say, though they radiated their unhappiness. Those who were almost ready to graduate were quite articulate about their previous lives and dysfunctional patterns of thought, while sharing their hopes, plans and expectations about how they will be doing better in the future.

The girls’ group was several miles away, closer to the valley floor. Although the background scenery at that specific time was not as majestic, the sense of being close to the reality presented by nature was equally strong. When we circled up with them, this group seemed stronger than the boys group. A couple of the new students seemed quite unhappy, while the ones who had been there longer demonstrated recently acquired leadership skills as they expressed how they were trying to help the newer students adjust to this different way of thinking.

Walkabout is a short-term wilderness program of variable length that is relatively new. Their second anniversary is to occur spring of 2003. Similar to most wilderness programs, they draw from ancient cultures’ rites of passage, their customs, perspectives and skills both for dealing with the natural elements as well as to teach better ways of coping with life in general. What is unique about Walkabout is that they use Australian aborigine, rather than Native American perspectives, tools, and metaphors as their model. For example, they have the students make a bullroar and use it as a metaphor for communication. A bullroar is a fish shaped device that emits a low unique roar that carries long distances when rotated around your head on the end of a long string. The bullroar has been associated with the Australian aborigines as a communication device – made popular by the popular movie Crocodile Dundee. Students also make their own backpack, bow drill fire sets, and other creative pieces all used to invite interest and inquiry of the students.

Although the wilderness is the most obvious aspect of the program, the wilderness is just a context for the real therapeutic work that is being done. Treatment is individualized, under the direction of licensed staff at the doctoral level. They work with adolescents with a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues who are between the ages of 13 and 17. They have the capacity for obtaining Psychological Testing Services when parents request it, often an important part of obtaining proper assessment as a critical first step in successful treatment. Specific attention is taken to encourage each student’s growth in each of the five life areas: Emotional/Psychological, Intellectual, Social/Behavioral, Spiritual/Ethical, and Physical.

In lieu of a formal level system, Walkabout has an elaborate system of rewarding progress. Students receive several tokens that are individually designed with specific symbols to match the specific treatment areas and goals through which the student is progressing.

Letting Go tokenAn example is the Letting Go token. Staff and therapists watch for evidences of growth such as the letting go of negative thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that have hindered their progress in the past. The student is taken aside and in a special ceremony, presented the token, with all its meanings and the reasons for the presentation. In addition, the student is given an invitation to continue their progress, leaving the option for them to “turn it back over” if they ever feel they are not doing so. Often times, students will put the tokens on a necklace using cordage they made themselves. Most students receive 2-5 tokens during their stay at Walkabout (there are 16 tokens in all).

Walkabout does not believe the students should be taking a vacation from academics. Thus students continue academic work during their stay. Part of the on-going assessment of the students includes determining learning styles, and students work on areas such as reading, writing, reasoning, problem solving, etc., while in the program.

Therapists are in the field working with the students on at least Tuesday and Thursday. Part of the reason for that is to foster good and quick communication between the students and their parents. The way it was explained to me was that the parent could write a letter on Monday, and get it to Walkabout so that the therapist could take the letter out in the field on Tuesday. The therapist would then return that night with a response from the student, which would be immediately sent to the parents. The parents could then respond to that, and their response would be taken to the student by therapist who is back in the field on Thursday. Walkabout feels that immediate and timely communication between the student and his or her parents is extremely important to help the family work through their issues and develop healthy family communication.

They described their approach to working with the students as respectful and not just confrontational. The staff takes a stance of developing a trusting relationship, inviting inquiry by the students and setting up what the staff refers to as teaching moments. This approach is particularly helpful because it reduces resistance to change and is designed, in concert with the token system, to promote internal changes, not just “jumping through hoops” to “get out of the program”.

Walkabout does not work with students with serious mental disorders or serious violence. However, they claim their approach has been especially effective with students who are depressed. It seems that their approach brings these students out of their shell so that they will start to accept help. This is a different approach than is often used by programs with these types of students; other programs wait for a student to act-out before they begin building a healing relationship.

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