June 13, 2016
An Interview with Second Nature Therapist, Bryan Lepinske
What attracted you to Wilderness Therapy?
For me, it’s been a lifelong process. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in central New York, on a small island carved out by rivers and a lake. We drew our water from the river and heated our house with a wood burning stove. I found respite in the wilderness from a very early age. I didn’t know anything about therapy, other than that it wasn't something available to poor people.
My first degree is in anthropology. I have always loved people and learning about them, their heritage, etc.. When I came out west I met a gentleman who was a wilderness therapy guide. When he explained it to me, it just clicked. It resonated with me deeply. Doing sound, sophisticated psychotherapy in a wilderness setting just made all of the sense in the world to me. It gives people the opportunity, for the first time in their lives, to really see themselves clearly. The wilderness is powerful. It’s certainly where I find peace - a sense of serenity and calm - in my own life. I am able to reflect in ways that I couldn't possibly with the world’s noise and chatter around me.
What are the theories that inform your work?
Interestingly enough, cultural anthropology has had a profound influence on how I approach this work. It necessitates a deep, sensitive regard for people, their families and their cultural upbringing, and there is a simplicity to it that is so beautiful. An anthropological lens has been much more useful to me, in a lot of ways, than the theories and methods that typically inform therapy. Motivational interviewing is profoundly important with individuals who are resistant. Family Systems Theory is also incredibly important to what I do. Helping individuals to develop strong critical thinking skills and the use of dialectics is also integral to my work. What is (perhaps) more important than anything else is coming from a place of understanding in terms of where the client is at and being deeply personal with that. We happen to work with a lot of adolescents who have been afforded a comfortable upbringing. With that, I've often found there to be an attitude in this work that we are supposed to “knock them off that high horse”, so to speak. That approach comes with a flavor of pretension, rather than one of compassion and understanding. We are often conditioned in our culture to be governed by jealousy and fear, rather than having deep regard, and the desire to understand. I prefer to do this work from a place of simplicity, and healthy attunement and attachment are at the very core of that simplicity.
How does a nomadic approach strengthen the wilderness therapy experience?
I'm not sure if it’s the nomadic as much as the primitive that I’m passionate about. That said, I do know that I am a very strong proponent of movement. It is essential. If you could only choose one intervention when treating depression - either movement, psycho-pharmacology, or psychotherapy, you would choose movement and exercise every time. Standing alone, it is proven to be far more effective than the other two. The repetition and practice that comes with being nomadic is also incredibly advantageous to behavior change. It lends itself well to cognitive restructuring and the cementing of new, healthier patterns of behavior. This is why movement is involved on so many levels at Second Nature. The hard work and discipline that comes with being nomadic is critical to the development of confidence, self-esteem and overall well-being, and it's not something that our students are accustomed to, historically. All of this said, it is the simplicity of the primitive experience that, for complex individuals, is so often able to facilitate deeper therapeutic work where other interventions could not. The awareness, insight, and sense of self that is attained through being with one's self, without distraction, is remarkable.
How do you help families adjust to wilderness?
Fortunately, by the time families get to me they are fairly committed to the process. They have already received significant support and coaching from their educational consultant. At that point, it's a natural progression. Once they get through the initial fear of their child being away they typically begin to settle and, more importantly, they begin to experience the respite that they've needed. They start to explore the notion of where their child ends and where they begin. I love helping them to see the value of that kind of healthy separation, becoming more aware of what’s going on, and capable of identifying “their stuff” while their child is identifying his stuff. Helping them to understand the value of their child entering this experience of chopping wood and carrying water, so to speak, in order to develop a sense of self for the first time in his life.
Is there another team member at Second Nature you would like to recognize, or that you rely on?
Without question, those who are the most influential to the students are the field mentors, the staff who are out there living with the students 24/7. This is such a collaborative process, and the field mentors at the ground level are the ones who are true agents of change. If outpatient therapy worked for these boys and girls, they wouldn’t be here. They need a cultural experience, and that’s what the field mentors do so well to create.
Can you share something that has happened in your group recently that is representative of your group's profile and culture?
Recently, a boy who is kind of quirky and a little bit of an outlier decided he wanted to give me a spirit name. The more socially sophisticated boys in the group who have historically had less humility and empathy really went to bat for this boy and showed up to help him create this beautiful ceremony. They did this in a way that really followed his lead and celebrated his uniqueness. We climbed a hill, shouted at the sky, and experienced an amazing ritual. I love those moments where the boys turn toward one another and connect in ways that they never before would have.
What would you say is important to remember about groups in wilderness therapy?
Eclectic and heterogeneous groups are incredibly valuable! Groups that become too niched and lose their diversity also lose the ability to allow for those who are different from one another to learn from one another.