HUNTERTOWN – For a few weeks every summer, mental health counselor Donovan Martin ditches the office – but not for vacation.
Instead, he and others from Dunn Associates P.C. take up to 20 teens with anxiety, high-functioning autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, to the outdoors as part of an experiential therapy program. This summer, it runs from mid-June to late July, culminating with a backpacking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Billed as adventure therapy, the Wilderness Element – which includes a week at the Lifeline ropes course in Pierceton – puts participants in situations that address their behavioral and emotional issues in ways that would be difficult to do in traditional therapy settings.
No electronics are allowed.
The experience is “definitely not a cure-all by any means,” Martin said, but “highly effective.”
Martin is CEO of both the Wilderness Element and Dunn Associates, a private practice providing counseling and psychological services in Fort Wayne. Dunn Associates provides therapy services for the former.
The summer program is in its sixth year, he said. Enrollment forms indicate the total cost was $2,500 per participant, and payment plans were available. It isn't covered by health insurance, but acceptable payment includes most health savings account cards.
Parents, in testimonials and an interview, praised the adventure therapy for connecting their children with others facing similar challenges and for teaching them how to manage their diagnosis. Talking about proper responses in a therapist's office isn't the same as having to apply those lessons while hiking, climbing or pitching a tent.
Of the 10 participants this summer, six have autism, four have severe ADHD and all have anxiety, Martin said during a late June session at an ACRES Land Trust site in Huntertown. They range from incoming sixth-graders to incoming high school juniors and include at least one participant returning for a second summer.
None wanted to comment for this story.
Light rain fell as the teens gathered under a red barn after a morning spent learning to pack backpacking gear. Together, they tackled the next challenge – lift a wooden pole, carry it a short distance and hoist it above their heads for three minutes.
The tasks weren't as much about the pole's weight as they were about the skills required, such as the focus needed from those with ADHD, Martin said.
For the timed challenge, the adults kept quiet as three minutes ticked by. The teens held the pole nearly two minutes longer than hoped.
Martin noted their success during discussion afterward. One of his favorite aspects of the program is having participants realize their abilities are much greater than their goals, he said.
Discussions are common during the program, which addresses such topics as communication, social cues, self-regulation and maintaining control during times of pressure, Martin said.
“It is a mental health group even though we are trying to get away from the stigma that comes with that,” he said.
Deeper issues are usually explored during the 10-day excursion in mid-July, when the teens “really start opening up,” Martin said. Being together day in and day out turns the group into a safe space to fail and receive feedback.
“That works a lot better than a therapist,” he said.