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November 3, 2009

I recently read Gary Ferguson’s Shouting at the Sky.  While the book was originally published in 1999, I got my hands on Hilary’s 2009 copy, a signed copy replete with a new foreword and afterword.  Ferguson’s insights are incredible, as his words convey his personal experience working with teens in a wilderness therapy program.  His recent reflections, written in April 2009, help place those insights in context with mental health system politics and economic issues.

Ferguson’s comments are aligned with the posting published on mental health care funding cuts and incidentally sending youth to prison rather than therapy.  Ferguson says:

“As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, good wilderness therapy programs, while just one therapeutic step among many, are showing extremely positive results treating many of the most acute problems of our times- from attention deficit disorder, to anger issues, to drug addiction.  Yet sadly, while there are more wilderness therapy programs out there than a decade ago, the profession as a whole has yet to recieve its due.   Mental health providers- or more accurately, the managed care system that drives them- are inclined to push for treatments that fit easily into the existing institutional juggernaut.  This means powerful experienced based treatments of all kinds, from equine therapy to wilderness programs, are routinely relegated to the back burner, left as options mostly for families who can pay for them out of their own pockets. (Sadly when several states did elect to fund outdoor programs in the late 1990’s, the money was almost without exception given to boot camps, which for most kids have little or no value.) (p. 253)”

Experience based treatments, due to percieved risks with the outdoors, are not getting the attention from state budget allocators that they deserve.   While some argue that nature is inherently dangerous and risk prone, I question the safety of the streets and the effectiveness of the traditional 50 minute hour.  The wilderness sends youth a different message than the hustle bustle of american culture.  Ferguson highlights a conversation with another seasoned field instructor, saying

“Alex has told me over and over how these kids aren’t problems to be fixed, but rather ‘people with gifts they haven’t yet realized.’ There’s something these kids are missing, he likes to point out, and it’s also missing in the culture.  ‘Its the realization they matter.  That their existence matters.  Their impulses, their words and conceptions and feelings- none of it’s incidental to who they are.  None of it is there by accident.’ (p. 208)”

Nature has a way of allowing youth to feel connected.  Their existence matters when it is placed into the backdrop of the wild, a powerful environment that allows one to realize his/her gifts.

I attended a speech by Ferguson at the 2008 wilderness therapy symposium.  His talk entered the depth of my being, striking many of my own passions.  He is inspirational – his book a must read! Please visit his website called Wildwords for more information.

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