Taking Therapy into the Wilderness

Therapy and counseling don’t just happen in an office. Anna Elliott, MA ’12, when she was a student in AUNE’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, took her love of nature and psychology outdoors and turned it into a terrific independent study that earned her academic credit and clinical experience.

Working for Outback Therapeutic Expeditions in Lehi, Utah, one recent summer, Anna was one of several staff members and therapists who accompanied groups of at-risk teenagers on week-long trips into the Utah wilderness.

“It promotes self-reliance from the beginning,” Anna said. “The kids have to make a spoon, make a backpack, and start a fire. If you make a crappy shelter, you’re going to be rained on. If you eat all your food the first day, you’re going to be hungry for the next three days.”

“As a staff member, you develop intensive clinical skills, a lot of in-the-moment processing and conflict resolution,” she said. “In residential and inpatient settings there’s a divide between the staff and the clinicians. But in the wilderness, there’s literally nowhere to go, so you have to develop trust. And, she said, I get to be a therapist outside, which is awesome.”

A Life-Long Dream

Anna had always known she wanted to be in counseling. She had worked for Outback Therapeutic Expeditions for two years after graduating from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with an undergraduate degree in psychology. The work was pivotal in her decision to go to graduate school. After leaving Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, she worked for a year in a rehabilitation center, where she learned how the roles of staff and clinicians differed and that she needed a graduate degree to pursue what she wanted to do.

She entered AUNE in 2009 and had internships at the Brattleboro Retreat in Brattleboro, Vermont, the Every Woman’s Center at UMass-Amherst, and the Art of Awareness Wellness Center in South Portland, Maine. After graduation, she planned to work as a licensed clinician either in wilderness therapy or in trauma work.

“An independent study relies on many kinds of independence,” Anna said. “Sometimes students think it’s hard that AUNE requires you to find your own internship. But it helps you develop some really necessary skills to seek out and go after experiences you want to have on your own motivation.”

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