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Cultivating Curiosity and Awareness: A Conversation with Clinical Therapist Julia Lehr

FEATURED AUTHOR: Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT

In the Q&A below, get to know Julia Lehr, therapist for early adolescent girls. 

How did you develop a passion for mental health, family therapy, and wilderness?

Mental health has always been a part of my life. There are mental health issues in my family, as well as with some of my friends, so I grew up witnessing the suffering that people endure as a result. I became passionate about alleviating that suffering and supporting people in doing that for themselves. 

I grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina, right outside of Asheville, and did my undergraduate studies there. When I first graduated college, I worked at a therapeutic boarding school for adolescent girls age 10 through 14. That was my first significant experience working with mental health issues. Seeing what those issues look like at a young age was very impactful for me. Watching the girls engage in different modalities like yoga and grow through their relationships with their mentors and milieu created a lot of hope for me and connected me to this type of work. 

What do you like about working with early adolescents?

What I think it is unique about this population is their creative and fun spirits. I’ve worked with a lot of kids in this age range. In my experience, early adolescent girls can be a little bit guarded. They might present as more mature than their actual age. Then, as they engage in therapeutic work, they start to soften and allow their true personalities to come out, which are often a little silly and spontaneous and fun. They’re less interested in those social roles they’re utilizing to navigate peer groups and their emerging environments as young adolescents.  

What I like about this age group is that we have the opportunity to do a lot of early intervention. Before students engage in risky behaviors in a more serious way, we’re able to intervene and provide both them and their families the skills to connect with each other and meet their needs in healthy ways. I’m really passionate about that, especially when working with adolescent girls.  As they emerge into the teen years, we have the chance to provide them with the tools and resources they need to support this transition.  

Describe your clinical background and experience. How has it led you to your current role as a therapist at Open Sky?

I went to graduate school at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and got a master’s in social work. I really wanted to work on micro practice and individual family therapy rather than policy and program development. That led me to specialize in couples and family therapy and I became dually licensed as a social worker and family therapist. Through that program, I understood in deeper ways the value of including families and what that means for long-lasting change. Oftentimes, through poor mental health, people tend to become really isolated from their social networks and families, and that creates even more suffering and distress. I became interested in how family units can wrap around someone who is suffering and support them in a way that creates healing and change, not only for them but for the entire system that they’re in. Because usually, it’s not that person alone who’s struggling. 

Incorporating the family is especially important for early adolescents. We want to focus on strengthening family connections so that as students progress developmentally, they have a family system they can go to when things are difficult. In the field, we use the team as a way to practice and develop relationships using concrete skills, such as “I feel” statements and other healthy coping skills. We strategically bring the families into the process so that families build skills together. We work with the entire family system rather than the individual client. That’s foundational to what we do at Open Sky, especially for this earlier demographic.  

What therapeutic tools and modalities do you use to guide the process for students and families?

Coming from the family therapy background, I have knowledge and experience with various models, so I’ll look at what the client needs and then create an integrated approach. Typically, I’ll operate from experiential models, such as emotion-focused therapy (EFT) or concepts of internal family systems (IFS). I also use a lot of experiential techniques to work with the students. We’ll do things like play games, make art, tell stories, and hold ceremonies so that students are engaged on many different levels and not just thinking things through. They’re able to think and do at the same time, so it increases their learning.  

Experiential activities are also great for assessment. Through observing students’ interaction with games and animals, as well as with their teams, peers, and guides, I assess how are they building relationships? How are they missing cues? What is their level of impulsivity or ability to redirect? When are they becoming more shy and more scared, and are they able to push past that in order to build connections? How are they able to put their own wants and desires aside in order to connect? I’m data collecting, basically, in a way that’s still fun.  

I also love to lead mindfulness activities within the group to approach whatever students are holding onto in a way that simply observes it rather than resists it. Sometimes I’ll have each student lead us in a different yoga posture as a way to invite them to slow down, practice speaking within a group, use their voice, and notice what is happening in their body and the emotions that are coming up. We also focus on the breath as a way to bring more awareness to their internal worlds. 

You describe yourself as a maker. What do you mean by that, and how does it show up in your work at Open Sky?

I am a very creative person. I don’t have one modality that I like to go to, so usually it’s whatever I feel inspired by in the moment. Sometimes it can be making a pillow through sewing different fabrics together, or it could be working on a spoon or a gift for someone. Ceremony and how to create ceremony have been a big part of my wilderness therapy practice, so that leads into the maker side of things. 

Recently in the field, a student was very excited about showing me their bow for their bow drill set. They really took a lot of time to sand their bow and carve little holes to put cord through so it’s easier to adjust. They put oil on it to really make the woodgrain come out. For certain students, having that passion and creativity can provide a lot of ownership over their experience and meaning. 

For other students, that doesn’t come as naturally. In the field we talk about core negative beliefs students may have. I notice that a lot of times in art, core negative beliefs come up. Some students are very resistant because they think, well, what does it mean about me if I can’t make this wonderful, beautiful bow drill set? They’ll try to make something mediocre so they can easily say, “Oh, well, I didn’t really try that hard. It doesn’t mean that much to me.” It’s not necessarily about having the students push those core negative beliefs away. It’s about understanding them, developing a greater relationship with them, and learning how they influence choices in life. It’s about asking, how are you showing up today? How are you letting things slide and not really putting yourself out there to make mistakes and learn new things? And then how are you coming back to create something different? 

What are your passions outside of work? How do they help you learn and grow both personally and professionally?

I have two dogs that are a great part of my personal life. They’re how I find joy and curiosity, and I love observing how they’re interacting with the natural environment when we’re hiking or trail running. Just being outside with them provides some of my happiest moments. They fuel my passion to take time to slow down and be in nature and appreciate what is around me. 

One of my dogs, Ezra, has been seeing clients with me for probably three years. She’s super sensitive and having her there is a great way for younger students to talk about personal boundaries and how to pick up on social cues. Oftentimes, kids are coming into wilderness therapy with a high level of impulsivity and aggression. They’re very motivated by a furry, cute thing and want to develop a relationship with the dog. A lot of what I do is working on attachment with students, so whether I have Ezra with me or I’m just talking about animals in general, it’s a way to get to that attachment piece with resistant clients who are distrustful of adults or relationships. 

Also, Ezra is a rescue, so I talk about some of the things she first struggled with when I rescued her, such as separation anxiety, and how she was able to work on herself, build a relationship with me, move past that, and heal. I then ask students things like, have you noticed this within yourself, or how can you relate to this story? It’s a very gentle way of talking about some hard issues. 

 

FEATURED AUTHOR: Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT