How Clinical Therapist Brooke Lederer Partners with Wilderness to Promote Growth and Healing
FEATURED AUTHOR: Brooke Lederer, MSW
I grew up in Carbondale, Colorado and went to a really outdoorsy high school whose motto was, “Education inside and out.” It provided a very supportive community environment. We went on backpacking trips, kayaking trips, and I was on the ski team. I can look back at my experience there and say that is where I developed as a person. That is where I found my moral compass, and even though I’ve progressed and changed in many ways since then, the core values I crafted there have remained the same: community, the outdoors, and working with other people.
When I started college, I had two different ideas in mind, that I would either go into the social sciences or I would go into sustainability and environmental sciences. I decided to go the social work route and went to the University of Denver. I was in their five-year program, so I was able to do my undergrad straight into my graduate degree. Within social work, I saw the importance of having a larger systems perspective and working with people within their environments. That understanding helped bring in some of my passions for working in sustainability and the environmental sciences.
I grew up skiing, hiking, and bike riding, but I had never spent extended time in the wilderness or on an overnight trip until high school. When I did, I felt that it was so healing for me. I was drawn to wilderness therapy partially from the healing I’ve received myself from being in the wilderness, and partially because I wanted to bring together two passions of mine: working with the environment and working with people. I recognized that those don’t need to be two separate things. They can be done together.
A big piece of wilderness therapy is helping students start to recognize that the work they do in the wilderness isn’t just an experience they had one time out in Colorado or Utah where they had to sleep on the ground and cook over a fire. Actually, the skills they learn at Open Sky are transferrable to the front country; to life after graduating. We help students create new skills, learn about themselves therapeutically, consider how they can be the same person with their family as they are in wilderness therapy, and support them in really feeling that and transferring those skills to life outside of Open Sky. Maybe they choose to go on hikes. Maybe they choose to engage in an aftercare program that has a wilderness focus. We try to help students bring who they have become because of the wilderness to who they are each day in life.
I began as a field guide at Open Sky in 2016. I aspired to move up into the therapist role and saw guiding as a way to start from the ground up. Through my guiding experience, however, I found such a love for that side of wilderness therapy that at times I questioned if I even wanted to be in the therapist role anymore, mostly because I really appreciate that face-to-face, 24 hours a day interaction and carrying out all the interventions with the students moment to moment. Guiding has given me a much more well-rounded view of what is possible for students, as well as what works with students on the ground. I think I have a lot of creativity and experience when it comes to different types of interventions.
I’m also really passionate about guide mentorships, whether that’s working with them to co-create or just being really specific about what different students need, because guides are the ones supporting students in the day-to-day with whatever interventions I decide to plan. I also come from a place of really working with the students themselves. At the beginning, they might not really know what it is they need. I try to work with them to co-create goals each week. I think oftentimes, we as therapists can come in with these ideas of, this is your diagnosis, and therefore, this is what you need to do. I try to approach my students with, this is your diagnosis, and that’s just a label. What’s not working for you? Where do you want to grow in your relationships with your parents? Where is it that you’re holding back and haven’t pushed yourself? I really believe in co-creation with both guides and students.
Another approach that I took as a field guide that I think really carries over into my therapeutic work is balancing when somebody needs to be challenged and when somebody needs to be held, loved, and supported. I think there are times when we’re in crisis, and we don’t need someone to hold a boundary in a strict way. We need somebody to hold a boundary by wrapping a blanket around us and telling us that we’re safe.
I mostly operate from a holistic, family systems, and strengths-based approach. I work to understand the person in their environment; not just their family environment, but also the larger environment the student came from before Open Sky. I ask about things like their social relationships, substance use, and nutrition. I look at the big picture holistically and consider what systems they were part of and what expectations were put on them, whether that relates to socioeconomic status, race, or gender. Then I work from that larger perspective of what the student needs within the system of Open Sky, because this is their family and their community environment while they’re here.
I also really believe in creating what we call the safe container for both students and families. That means meeting people where they’re at with compassion and care while also holding loving boundaries. Oftentimes, we have parents coming to the program who may be feeling anxious; they’re in crisis. They want the best for their child, and whatever has happened up to this point wasn’t working. So we work to create that safe container of firm and loving boundaries, which sometimes means supporting them with other wrap-around support. Students come to us because they’re seen as the identified client, but families always have work to do as well. And at Open Sky, we support the family in doing their own work alongside the student, as well as that transition time when the student goes back with their family. That way, this doesn’t just become some skill they learned in the wilderness, but something they can integrate in a new way of being with their loved ones at home.
My approach with students and their families is not, what’s wrong with you? Rather, I look at, what has happened in your life? What experiences have you had that have helped to shape you? I don’t frame it as, this is something that is wrong with you, but come at it with a question: what’s your story? I seek to understand.
I’m passionate about spending time alone in the wilderness. I believe the wilderness has the power to heal us. I have experienced this for myself, as well as through my work with students as both a guide and therapist. I look to the wilderness to connect and remind us of the beauty to be found both within us and around us, as well as our ability to face adversity and come out through the storm more resilient and aware of our own capabilities. I also use the support of wilderness to help teach students through natural consequences and learning to care for themselves and each other in new ways.
I also love yoga and have completed a yoga teacher training. It helps me physically with strength and balance, as well as connects me to community and practices that are bigger than myself. It teaches me to be able to sit with discomfort, to recognize that in this moment, I’m not comfortable, but I’m OK. So much of that translates into the work at Open Sky, not just through the therapy we do, but also by challenging ourselves, learning to be uncomfortable, and building resiliency. I love meditation, dance, skiing, hiking, and anything that creates deeper connections between one’s heart, mind, body, and soul.