Adolescent Mental Health Therapy–It’s in the Experience

Here in Washington State there is a current concern about meeting the mental health needs of adolescents, specifically around two issues:

  1. Intervene in an adolescent’s life before that adolescent causes harm to others (I believe the worry is about public safety and reducing crime), and
  2. Providing that adolescent with “evidenced-based” therapy–NOT talk therapy, that has not yielded positive results.

I wish I could find the folks who are trying to get our legislature to address these two concerns.  Here is what I would say:

First:  Our ability to determine who is GOING to commit a crime leaves us wide open to being extremely judgmental based upon—what criteria???

As a therapist, I was reality-oriented and had a fairly good idea of how individual adolescents reacted to given situations; but as for committing a crime BEFORE the incident took place?  Hmmm.

What I think our caring adults are concerned about really has to do with those adolescents who have poor self-esteem, who are at risk for dropping out of school, who have not found a positive, safe place in the world.  For whatever reason, overall, these adolescents usually present themselves as unable to be successful in school.  They begin to seek other ways in which to form alliances and feel good about themselves.

What can we do for these kids?

First: dropping out of school is NOT an option.  Every kid has the ability to be successful in school in some form or other.  How are we NOT meeting these needs?

Second: Evidenced-based therapy has unfortunately NOT looked at the interventions that are NOT considered to be “therapy.”  By this, I mean, the folks who do the numbers for positive outcomes for therapy very rarely look outside of traditional “talk therapy.”  I would refer all who are concerned about Evidenced-Based Therapy to spend some time with Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, Research Director of The Melissa Institute.

Third:  Experiential Therapy is extremely valuable in being able to use “talk therapy.”  Without the experiential event, the adolescent is often unable to “get it.”  My favorite Experiential Therapy involves three forms of “events.”

A)  Events that are structured around Adventure Based Counseling (ABC) techniques are excellent at promoting “learning from the inside-out.” Understanding based upon having participated while growing in knowledge is the best form of “getting it.”  Any school room, counselor’s office, playground, open space can be utilized to having an adolescent participate in ABC.

B) That adolescents are within a group as they experience this growing “inside” knowledge.  The group can be classmates or family.  Family ABC is terrific in changing family dynamics.  Any classroom with any set of peers can be used to create an ABC event.

C) Use of “talk therapy” has to be relevant to the adolescent.  Honesty and non-judgmental feedback are also a must.  There is a structure for this type of therapy that began at the Wyoming Girls School.  It instantly provides the adolescent with a sense of being in the presence of an adult who “understands” and is “honest.”

To intervene with caring and honesty, we need to look at how we promote our own values on kids whose experiential understanding is so different from ours.  That doesn’t mean that we change our expectations, it means that we have to meet them where they are and then give them the experiences to change.  Please, in understanding how schools can meet needs, take a look at Rafe Esquith’s classroom at Hobart Elementary School.

Please feel free to add your own understandings about this subject.

Be gentle with yourself and all of our children.


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