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by Strugglingteens, LLC
Jul 21, 2005
Wilderness Therapy And The White Hot Glare Of Publicity
By: Jennifer C. Jones
[Jennifer Jones is a freelance business writer who lives in Layton, UT. She is a former news producer for the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City.]
In the southern Utah wilderness six teenagers, two staff members and a camera crew are trekking across the frozen plateau. The teens are part of a hand-selected group from Great Britain. They are experiencing first-hand the rigors of wilderness therapy as practiced by the Utah based program, RedCliff Ascent.
A British production company selected RedCliff for a documentary called "Brat Camp." The show aired nationally on ABC Family, as well as networks in Great Britain and Australia. It generated a storm of controversy on Internet message boards throughout the world.
RedCliff is experiencing "the white hot glare of publicity." How will the company's decision to allow a film crew follow the kids' affect what happens to them? How might it affect what happens to other addiction therapy programs?
Reality TV shows like "Super Nanny," and "Intervention" are capturing millions of viewers. Producers anxious to break new ground are approaching increasing numbers of therapy programs. But should the cameras be allowed to focus on kids?
Dr. Thomas Kimball, Associate Professor at the Center for the Study of Addiction at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX, said, "As a therapist I'm a people researcher so to watch 'Brat Camp' was fascinating. I have serious concerns about us portraying minors who need help on TV and portraying it as entertainment, especially minors that aren't able to give consent in meaningful ways."
Kimball says reality television shows play to a side of human nature everyone has. "We're fascinated by things that are ugly. We look when there's a car accident. Traffic backs up and we watch it. That's why reality TV is so hot. It feeds our need to look in on people's lives."
How did a tiny wilderness therapy company in Springville, UT, capture the attention of a British television production company?
Tamara Abood, producer for London-based Twenty-Twenty Productions said it started with a water cooler conversation. "We said we wanted to do something about teenagers and teenage behavior. A network executive had heard of wilderness therapy but he didn't know what it was."
That led to Internet research and RedCliff Ascent. "We narrowed it down to a handful of programs we were keen to visit in person," Abood explained. "RedCliff was the first one we visited. We knew instantly they were the program for us. They have a devoted staff. You got a clear feeling that you were dealing with committed professionals. That was vital."
While the producers were convinced, RedCliff was not. "They weren't interested when we went to see them," Abood recalls. "Our tact was this could do a lot of good if people see what it is you do. It has the scope to help, to educate and inform."
Stephen C. Schultz, spokesman for RedCliff said, "Our biggest concern was the privacy of our students and the potential impact on the therapeutic process. How would the kids react? Are they going to play to the camera?"
Schultz said this isn't the first time RedCliff has been contacted by media. "We've had interaction with A&E in the past and different media folks. It's very apparent that people come in with a slant or an agenda. We didn't know up front, what Twenty-Twenty's slant was going to be. We were worried it would be exploitative in nature."
"They were naturally quite skeptical about letting a film crew through their doors," Abood said. "We're used to filming in sensitive situations. We would simply be there as observers. We simply wanted to watch and learn."
"We weren't looking to find someone - we weren't soliciting," notes Dr. Daniel M. Sanderson (Doc Dan) as his colleagues refer to him, is a clinical psychologist who serves as RedCliff's Clinical Director.
"There have been previous attempts to do a cursory view of what takes place at RedCliff," Sanderson said. "We've had crews out on a few occasions. The difficulty is they were only able to provide a snapshot. It was tough to show the process of transition as it typically unfolds. Our experience was not really all that positive."
RedCliff officials and the producers, Abood and colleague Sam Whittaker, discussed the project for weeks. Sanderson explained that ultimately the clinical staff made the final decision. "We had a number of discussions and decided to give it a shot. The thing that swayed us more than anything else is we were promised we would have therapeutic control over how things would go. We told the company we would not alter the program or stage events. We were going to do whatever was necessary to make sure it was in the child's best interest. We were there to provide treatment."
Producers Abood and Whittaker accepted the arrangement. In their previous work on sensitive subjects such as terrorism survivors and juvenile diabetics they had practiced a restrained approach.
"You get used to being in environments where people are telling you sensitive and painful things," Abood explained. "It's about treading carefully and being humane in the way that you deal with people and understanding where the lines of good taste and sensitivity are. You can go there and go no further."
Schultz explained, "They were willing to learn all they could. Sam spent time out here seeing teams, going into the field and talking to people. They did the research and talked to organizations. It was not only what they were saying, but they were doing the right things to research and really find out what we were about."
Abood said, "The key ground rule we got from RedCliff was, 'We do what we do. Don't ask us to do things differently for the sake of TV.'" With the rules clearly in place, both sides agreed to give the production a try.
For Abood and Whittaker, the production goal was clear. The concept of wilderness therapy was virtually unheard of in Britain. "The geography doesn't really lend itself to wilderness," Abood explained.
She added that anti-social teenage behavior and family break down was grabbing headlines and political attention. "The idea was to show how our cousins across the water tackle these issues. We wanted to educate and inform families and perhaps help them to tackle their own issues."
"I wanted to have RedCliff portrayed in an accurate fashion," said Dr. Sanderson. "I wanted RedCliff to be seen as a viable treatment option, and that we are head and shoulders above most of the other programs that are available."
Schultz explained the management perspective at RedCliff. "At the time there was an unexplored market in the U.K. Nothing like this was over there. This was an opportunity to have kids and families learn about new treatments."
Since wilderness experiential therapy was virtually unknown in the U.K., RedCliff saw it as a good way to test the water without impacting their business model in the U.S.
The production took on a whole new dimension when RedCliff owners learned "Brat Camp" would air in the United States after British broadcasters made a deal with ABC Family to air the production.
That had RedCliff worried. Now a worldwide audience could have access to the program. If the program was not accurate or fair there would be little RedCliff could do about it.
Selecting the Students:
The company sent Sanderson to London to help screen potential students. Some parents responded to the casting call as just that - an opportunity to get their child on TV. "Those kids were eliminated," Doc Dan recalled. The producers narrowed the applicants to 12.
"All of the potential applicants met with a U.K. psychologist," Sanderson explained. "Then the executives went through and selected the ones they thought would be most appropriate."
If the producers hadn't involved a psychologist Sanderson said he would have wanted RedCliff's own admissions counselors to make the determination. Even with input from a mental health professional, Sanderson admits some of the kids that made the TV cut would have never been accepted into the program.
"The only way they were here is because someone else was paying their way," he says. "Their parents weren't as invested." citing Karl Menninger's core principles, Sanderson said that, "paying for therapy is what keeps the relationship on an even keel. There needs to be mutual investiture."
Doc Dan said he believed taking the students producers selected was better than hand picking them. He's so confident in the RedCliff program he says any child could see positive progress. He hoped "Brat Camp" would prove it. "We could show some amazing things happening to kids we didn't solicit."
He met with the parents to provide them with an overview of the program and answer questions. That was the first opportunity for producers and RedCliff staff to learn a principle both sides would struggle with throughout the production.
"Everything we did took a lot longer than the television crew anticipated," Doc Dan discovered. "The crew wanted to hurry the parent meetings along. We didn't get to do the typical one-hour session that would have helped me get a better conceptualization of what was going on with their children, a sense of family dynamics."
Back in the States, 16-year-old Jessica was on her way to a rendezvous she says changed her life. Now 18, Jessica describes her life at that time. "I wanted to experience the world and do everything I could regardless of the consequences." Specifically, Jessica was heavily addicted to meth. "My parents saw RedCliff as their only hope."
Jessica's mother, Erin, learned about RedCliff on the Internet. "We were trying to find an alternative method rather than taking her to a hospital lock-down scenario. She needed something that would jar her to the bone." Jessica had been at RedCliff just five days before being put in the "Brat Camp" group.
Although she had signed a consent form authorizing the company to use Jessica's picture in various materials, Erin said, "It's kind of a mixed bag. You feel a little personally invaded that they will air your kid nationally. But our feeling was it would be for the greater good."
Besides protecting the privacy of their students, Stephen Schultz admits RedCliff was concerned about having a film crew in the rugged Utah backcountry. "We weren't going to do anything different for the kids just because a crew was there. Was the crew in shape enough to hike with the kids? How would we take care of them and their equipment if the weather turned bad?"
RedCliff assigned a senior staffer to watch over the film crew. A large army-type tent in a central location served as a sleeping area. The staff member made sure the crew had food and appropriate shelter for themselves and their gear. Generators supplied power to re-charge camera batteries and other equipment.
"When they originally showed up they came with outdoor gear that was nice but most of the time they were standing around, not hiking, so they were freezing," Doc Dan recalled. "They had to get different gear."
Abood says she started production with a six-person crew: two camera operators, two sound people, and two producers/directors. "By the end of three months of shooting there were just the two of us. Sam shot and I did sound."
Timing: Less than Perfect
Initially the production team figured about six weeks worth of shooting. The reality was much different. "The shoot took almost twice as long as we had anticipated," Abood said. Over budget with no immediate end in sight Abood and Whittaker were committed to finish the project even though it meant doing all the work themselves.
"The reality is we have some responsibility as program makers and we can't simply take a group of children out there and say, 'Well, our money's running out so you're going to have to cut it short.'"
A hallmark of RedCliff's program is that it is open-ended with no fixed graduation point. "All of the students from the U.K. were not at the same levels. They did not progress at the same rate," said Doc Dan. "We constantly had to remind the producer in the U.K. that this is the way we do it. We're not graduating any one earlier."
The production team suffered another setback. Tamara Abood explained, "When we arrived with the British children they were very badly behaved and Doc Dan decided to split them and limit the bad behavior by mitigating the pack mentality."
"From our perspective that became very difficult logistically. We hadn't anticipated that. It became very difficult to try and film two groups with one crew. Although it would have been fantastically convenient for us, Doc Dan only put the group back together when it was therapeutically good for the group."
Sanderson said when filming was underway the film crew had a difficult time not becoming emotionally involved with the students. "There were many occasions right up front when the kids would appeal to the crew, 'Can't you see how hard this is?' The crew did a good job of keeping their distance."
"It was difficult to draw the line," Abood admitted. "We knew these children. I was involved in their selection. We filmed them in their home environment before life was uncomfortable. We were familiar reminders of home. We were friendly and warm but we were very careful to avoid getting involved in their issues. That's the job of the RedCliff staff."
Jessica said, "The first day hiking they got in my face with the camera and it really bugged me. I was crying, I was upset, I've never hiked before."
Erin said it was difficult watching her daughter struggle on TV. She said Jessica was "feeling horrible. She was cleaning out from the drugs, not getting along well with some of the kids, and having a camera in her face was the icing on the cake. It made Jessica really angry."
Yet Erin said she's not sure having a film crew present made much of a difference. "Because of her emotional state, I think Jessica really didn't give a damn. They weren't really interviewing Jessica or talking to her."
Jessica explained that the crew focused on the Brits and really had little to do with other students in the program. "We didn't really interact much at all. We wouldn't talk to them or anything."
Cameras and Therapeutic Intervention:
Jessica does believe the cameras affected students' behavior. "They wanted to kind of get their licks in while the camera crew was there. Stage a fight verbally or something funny to make it interesting."
Doc Dan admitted he was not immune to the magnetic effect of the camera. "Initially I saw myself go into a performance mode," he said. "I think the awareness of the camera made me a little hesitant at times about the things I was saying. The thing the camera did for me more than anything else was know that my primary responsibility was taking care of the student that I was with."
As a therapist, he said there were times when having cameras present resulted in a more restrained approach. "There were a couple of students early on that if the cameras were not rolling we would have gotten into much more potentially damaging kinds of material. My thought was I don't need this to be on tape for this student. I wouldn't want this to be broadcast all over the world or in the city where this student has to live."
"Individual sessions with a counselor or therapist should be off limits," Dr. Kimball maintains. "There are times when you take a kid and do one on one. That should never be broadcasted."
Sanderson said he had two sessions with each student when cameras were not present. He used that time to discuss more sensitive issues. "Therapy is an intensely personal experience. When we're getting to core issues no one else really needs to know that."
He added, "If I thought the student was stuck or was not making the insight, I would have said let's turn the cameras off and do this without them. We'd made that agreement right up front. We're doing what's best for the students."
"An intense un-covering process on camera doesn't equip the patient to manage what just happened," he explained. "It may be less efficient, but if the patient can go through the uncovering process themselves then the healthy coping processes will be much better."
Were the students performing? It depends on whom you ask. "Initially they were performing," Sanderson said. "After we had been doing it for a couple of weeks we didn't really even think about it."
Jessica feels certain one incident was staged. "One time we were hiking and all of a sudden we stopped our hike just as we had begun. We had English tea and muffins because one of the parents had sent it out for us to have. That would never ever happen but it happened to us because they wanted to film it."
Downside of Fame:
RedCliff officials said, generally speaking, they are pleased with the "Brat Camp" program. They feel producers Abood and Whittaker treated them fairly. But there are a few lingering concerns.
First, the name. RedCliff was less than enthusiastic when they realized the program would be titled "Brat Camp."
Second, Schultz said, "They didn't talk enough about the therapeutic aspect that's involved. There's a general feeling that the therapeutic aspects of the program weren't equally represented with the wilderness and survival skills."
Schultz added that he believes that's because solid therapeutic intervention is boring.
Doc Dan agrees. "I would have liked the viewing public to come to an understanding of more of the therapeutic process. Not only do we have solid 'in the field' programming, but I would have liked the clinical aspects of the program to come to the forefront."
Sanderson said he worked endlessly with one of the U.K. parents who attempted several times to sabotage her daughter's success. "There's a lot of work that went into turning that around. That's kind of boring but that's where the real work takes place."
Schultz wondered if this type of publicity could hurt the program's effectiveness. "Part of the success in what we do is the obscurity. If I'm a kid back in New York, and I've never even heard of wilderness programs and I find myself out here, standing in the middle of nowhere, that's some serious reality staring me right straight in the face. If I've seen 'Brat Camp' and I've been in chat rooms, the dynamics change the more information I have"
Doc Dan said some of his most effective counseling is done around the campfire. "It's an incredibly therapeutic environment." The mood was significantly altered with lights and cameras. "It's almost impossible to recreate with cameras there. The camera lights didn't let kids see the stars."
Jessica says the camera's point of view was too one-sided. "The film crew chose what got to be shown. They showed the outcome of things but they didn't show the cause."
She added, "They showed the bad aspects of going through the hard times. They didn't show how much fun we had. We laughed. We goofed around. People want to see controversy so that's what they put on TV."
Her mother, Erin, said the producers missed a critical component. "It didn't stress enough that there's a whole eight-step process that they go through. Those are all value courses: honesty, integrity, etc. to help them along as they're learning other tasks. They have to write in their journals every day. The counselors read those journals and make comments back to them."
"It would have been more beneficial if they had given it more of a documentary style rather than a reality show tone. I think they did that to boost the viewer-ship." She also worries about ABC Family's on-line promotions. "It's like a soap opera. They're missing the point."
And the fact the viewing audience has labeled some of the U.K. students. "One kid becomes a 'hottie' and another, a bitch. They're tagged. How does it affect them in their lives?"
Schultz also admits RedCliff was astonished at the celebrity status some of the students received. "We never anticipated the U.K. kids would become media celebrities. We're a treatment program with limited experience with the media. Obviously, if we were to do another media project that would be a consideration. Is there a potential for these kids to carry a label? Is there a potential for that label to affect them positively or negatively regardless of what they do in the program?"
Is There a Benefit?
Was there a positive side to the filming? "The only thing I can see that is remotely positive is a lot more parents are becoming informed and aware of what therapies are available to kids," Kimball added. "Brat Camp' distilled hope. It dispels the myth that they're the only parents suffering."
According to Abood, that's exactly what happened in Britain. "It's a very British thing that you don't bare your dirty laundry in public so to speak. Parents want to go into work and say my kid got straight A's or won the sports cup. They don't want to say my son is taking drugs or crashing out at school. A lot of people took enormous comfort and thought perhaps they're not alone."
She described viewer response as 'phenomenal.' "We couldn't have anticipated it would be as successful as it was. That it would strike such a chord."
Dr. Kimball countered, "Do the positives outweigh the huge concerns? I have to believe there are better ways to get the message out."
Not surprisingly, Twenty-Twenty was more than willing to do a sequel. RedCliff said no. The British production company picked another ranch-based program, also in the U.S., and moved on.
The ABC network wanted to do its own version of a "Brat Camp" sequel and also asked RedCliff to participate. The answer was still no.
"We're not a TV show. We're a treatment program for kids and families," Schultz said. "For a program to continue to be successful in TV it needs to continually up itself the next season. When you're dealing with troubled kids and the wilderness, the only thing we could think of were tougher kids or worse weather. We're not willing to take that risk. It's not about entertainment value. It's about working with families and changing lives."
ABC turned to Oregon-based SageWalk. The new series aired on July 13, 2005.
Is it Ethical?
The camera crew is gone but the debate may be just getting started. Should RedCliff, or any other treatment facility, participate in this kind of programming?
"Is it unethical if these are families seeking help, who have agreed to come to our program and be filmed in the hope that something positive will happen to their child and their family? I don't think that's unethical," Schultz said. "The dilemma isn't whether or not the kids get filmed. The issue is how the film is edited and how it's used. You can go to any university and they're doing family therapy behind a mirrored window and they're filming it."
Abood said it depends on who is doing the filming and how they do it. "We were very careful to keep a distance when it came to the actual therapy. The lines for us were very, very clear. There's no point in taking children out to a therapeutic environment with the aim of helping them and their families and then undo it by showing things that are very, very personal. I would say that we stayed on the right side of the line throughout.
Jessica said she had no problem with the shoot. "They chose kids specifically for the program. That's the whole reason those kids were there. To help them and to promote to parents that there is help out there.
Kimball is not convinced. "I don't believe that media and therapy mix very well. It's a huge gray area. What is the impact on the rest of their lives because they were on 'Brat Camp'? These are really unknowns. Was it unethical? It definitely flirts with the line."
"I think that's very harsh," Abood countered. "RedCliff took an enormous amount of convincing. It was so clear that these are people who live and breathe their jobs, who truly believe that what they're doing has a positive impact on teenagers."
Erin believes the company had a chance to put the word out about wilderness programs and they took it. "I don't think they did it as a totally self-serving thing."
Putting the word out may be an understatement. Stephen Schultz said the number of unique (new) visitors to the RedCliff website used to be about 12,000 per month. Since "Brat Camp" aired, the unique visitor count has jumped to 25,000 and is holding steady.
Schultz said RedCliff routinely gets requests from all kinds of programs ranging from Maury Povitch to MTV. He politely turns them down. "With some of these programs you have to look at the producers and wonder didn't they do any research into our program? They have to realize this isn't a good fit."
Thomas Kimball said "Brat Camp" was marketing "slam dunk." He predicts more and more therapeutic programs will try to grab a share of the spotlight. "I'm concerned about that. I don't think the responsibility lies with the broadcasters. I think it lies with the programs."
Copyright 2005 Jennifer C. Jones