Social media feeds are full of parents proudly posting their child’s latest accomplishment or milestone like the first day of school pic, dance photos from homecoming and prom, or cap and gown images at graduation. It’s an exciting time for parents and a chance to show the Internet world how well their kids are doing at “life.” But for parents whose children are away receiving life-saving treatment for mental health issues, seeing those images can be devastating. It reinforces the feelings of shame and loss families feel when what was supposed to be a predictable journey through junior high and high school suddenly veers off course.
“You feel so alone and you feel so isolated,” said Jenny, a Charlotte, North Carolina mom whose daughter left school the last day of her junior year for wilderness therapy. “You don’t know who you can trust to talk to and you’re embarrassed to admit what’s going on.”
This embarrassment and isolation leads many families to silently suffer while wondering if their child will ever get better. Silence leads to a lack of public discussion surrounding programs designed to help kids in a mental health crisis. Simply put, families have no idea what help is out there and they’re too ashamed to ask.
Jenny experienced this when seeking help for her daughter who was using drugs as a way to “self-medicate” for anxiety, depression, and a learning disability. She was only familiar with “military-style” boarding schools but didn’t think it was the right fit. It took a conversation with a former co-worker about parenting struggles that finally introduced Jenny to the world of wilderness therapy programs. She researched the program recommended by that co-worker and enrolled her daughter the next day.
Through her daughter’s treatment - which included three months at the wilderness program plus 9 months at a residential treatment center - Jenny started to meet other families in the same situation. That’s how she met Michelle, a mom also from Charlotte.
Jenny and Michelle
Michelle’s son attended the same wilderness program for anger issues brought about by anxiety and depression. He then transitioned to the same after-care program where Jenny’s daughter was enrolled. Michelle and Jenny met at a weekly meeting for parents whose teens were in the after-care program and connected over a conversation about the high cost of therapy.
The women, who jokingly describe themselves as complete opposites, bonded over their shared mental health journey with their teens. Both were unfamiliar with mental health treatment programs prior to getting help for their own children and realized how lonely the experience can be when the information isn’t easily accessible or shared. They decided to change that.
“We started talking about how helpful the parent group was,” said Jenny describing a conversation with a mother who came to her seeking information about their wilderness therapy experience. “No one talks about it and everyone should, so we thought, maybe we should do something about it. We started brainstorming ideas about how to get the word out.”
Those talks led to the moms writing a book about the wilderness therapy experience - “Into the Wilds: A Mother’s Guide to Wilderness Therapy.” Their hope is to provide help to families in crisis who are unaware of the benefits of therapy programs like wilderness and to provide support for those with a child currently in a program. They wanted to share information they could have used when their kids first needed help.
The book is short and easy to read, something the authors felt was important since families in crisis are in search of simple, straightforward advice. They also hope to educate those families whose only experience with wilderness therapy comes from negative news stories and misinformation.
Michelle recalled first learning about wilderness therapy years ago when her son was a toddler and how she wrongly assumed at the time that sending a child away was a terrible thing to do.
“My first thought was, “who’d ever send their kids to live in the woods for weeks on end, that’s horrible,” Michelle described in their book. “Little did I know that 14 years later I’d be that parent. It’s a tough decision to make, a decision usually made within days of realizing something needs to be done, now.”
Jenny added, “It’s such an isolating journey. It’s so hard and you’re so alone that I didn’t want other moms to feel like I did. I’ve lived through my mom’s death at a young age and a divorce and this was, by far, the hardest.”
Jenny and Michelle’s book is one example of a grassroots effort started by parents who saw a need for information and support for families facing a mental health crisis. Across the country in California, another mom is doing similar work to make a difference.
Tami Ann was inspired to write a book based on her family’s experience finding help for their 14-year-old son who started struggling with mental health issues after what she described as “drastic changes in high school.” Tami Ann said her son went from being a “happy-go-lucky” kid singing in the school choir and winning MVP on his school’s water polo team to isolating in his room. His grades were slipping and her son started self-medicating with cough syrup, alcohol, and marijuana.
After meeting with a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with major depressive disorder, anxiety and attention deficit disorder, Tami Ann and her son’s father hoped that medication would help. But the prescription led to “extreme emotional dysregulation and suicidal ideation” which required Tami Ann to lock up knives in the house and to sleep by his bed when her son didn’t seem safe. They were living in constant fear their son would harm himself.
For school, the family tried an IEP - Individualized Education Plan - to help him feel supported in the classroom and even enrolled their son in a smaller, private school. None of that fixed what Tami said was “going on deep inside of him.”
“We knew we needed to think outside the box to help him,” Tami Ann said.
Tami Ann learned about wilderness therapy but her son’s local therapy team wasn’t supportive based on limited knowledge or misconceptions about residential treatment programs. A friend referred her to an educational consultant who places kids in therapeutic programs. It took Tami Ann two years to finally decide to enroll her son.
“I feel like it would be beneficial for school counselors, psychologists, private therapists, and other mental health professionals to educate parents about this level of treatment,” said Tami Ann. “At least to point parents in that direction when their kids are in crisis so they know it’s an option.”
This lack of support and information eventually led Tami Ann to write her book. She and her son collaborated on the memoir, “A Wilderness Journey: The Story of a Teen’s Road to Healing.”
The book tells the story of a struggling teenager like her son who spends three months living “off the grid” in a wilderness therapy program while learning coping mechanisms to help him heal emotionally. Tami Ann said she took all of the information she learned through their experience and put it in one place so families in crisis can easily find it.
“These are things I wish I’d known early on with our journey,” said Tami Ann who described searching online unsuccessfully for a similar book when looking for help for her son. “I designed this book in my head before sending my son to treatment and wished someone else had written it.”
Tami Ann said finding support is vital for families with a child in crisis.
“When my son went to wilderness therapy, I withdrew from society and felt so alone and lost,” she said. “While other kids were doing regular high school activities like playing sports, going to homecoming dances, and taking college trips, my son was living in Utah sleeping on the ground, hiking for miles and trying to figure himself out. He was missing his formative years in high school and I was missing my boy. I felt like I was being robbed of watching him grow up and was grieving what I thought life was supposed to be for us.”
Tami Ann originally found support through a once-a-week conference call hosted by the wilderness program’s family service coordinator. Parents called in from all over the country to ask questions and share their experiences, something she greatly needed to help her cope. However, she realized a once-a-week conference call wasn’t enough. She soon learned about a private, online support group formed by parents from her son’s wilderness program. She joined and instantly felt a connection with the parents over their shared experiences.
“No one else in my life at that time could fully understand the journey we were on,” she said.
When her son moved on to a therapeutic boarding school following the wilderness program, Tami Ann and a few friends from the wilderness group formed their own online support group. It started out small with just a handful of parents but has since grown through word-of-mouth. Parents use the group to ask questions about treatment, seek opinions on programs, or to simply share when they’re having a bad day. The group has become a safe space for families in crisis who feel alone when friends at home just don’t “get it.”
“Online and in-person support helps to fill in the gap of what parents are missing from school counselors, therapists and from friends at home,” said Tami Ann. “It’s such a beneficial healing tool to have a personal connection with other parents. I find parents who have had kids in crisis to be the most empathetic and resourceful humans.”
Two Different Books, One Similar Goal
Both books were written by moms who started an emotionally-exhausting and scary journey they knew nothing about to save their suffering child. At the time, they said there was no guidebook or easily accessible information of what to do when a child or teenager is experiencing a mental health crisis. These moms researched online and learned what works and what doesn’t. They started to meet other parents in support groups and found a kinship with families dealing with similar issues. With their own children now thriving, these moms wanted to give back.
Jenny and Michelle’s book is short with easy to read chapters that give concise information about the wilderness therapy process like who’s eligible, how to choose a program, paying for therapy, addressing myths and misconceptions about wilderness therapy, what a day “in the woods” is like, and the parent’s role when their child is away. It reads like the popular “Dummies Guide to…” books - the instructional series that presents new material to readers in a non-intimidating manner.
Toward the end of the book, stories are shared of teens who completed a wilderness therapy program, including Michelle’s son and Jenny’s daughter. The moms describe their differing experiences getting a child to a program. For example, Michelle’s son willingly went to a wilderness therapy program and was dropped off by his parents while Jenny used a transport service for her daughter. In the book, Jenny describes in detail how the transport team arrived at her house early one morning and how it successfully played out. The book also features excerpts of letters between the parent and child written while the child is at a wilderness program.
Tami Ann’s book is both an in-depth storyline based on her son and a “wilderness therapy for dummies” guidebook to help parents understand how the process works as a whole. To tell his story, she uses the family's letters and journals, and pulls it together with the concept of the monomyth or “hero’s journey,” a structure often found in myths and folklore that focuses on the three phases of a hero’s experience - separation, initiation and return. Tami Ann explains that wilderness therapy is often compared to the “hero’s journey” by wilderness therapy professionals. Her son contributed to the story with his narrations on the experience after he graduated from his wilderness and aftercare programs.
Tami describes the experience as a parallel process and gives examples of the mental health tools the entire family learned during her son’s time in the program. At the conclusion of the book, there is a chapter with testimonials from a handful of students who graduated from different wilderness programs, and resources like support organizations, recommended books and podcasts, financial assistance groups, and non-profit organizations.
Both books serve a purpose by providing families in crisis with much-needed information.
“I realized this story would help others to recognize that, even though parents want to create a soft landing for their children and to prevent them from feeling cold, sad, desperate and lonely, it doesn’t help to rescue them,” Tami Ann writes in her book. “They need to rescue themselves. It’s necessary for them to conquer the hardships so they can face their dragons head-on and return home with the reward of emotional resilience.”
The books also provide hope for parents who have spent the last few years tip-toeing around a dysregulated or addicted child. All the moms share how well their children are doing now like Michelle’s son who’s working with troubled teens and Jenny’s daughter who’s in college with plans to become a wilderness therapist.
“She’s extremely committed and I have no doubt that she’ll make this happen and be great at it,” said Jenny. “In her words, she’d tell you, ‘I want to help save someone else’s life like the woods saved mine.’”
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