March 2, 2015 Marion MacDonald

Gone Wild: Backpacking with Mirasol

Adventure therapy is a key component of Mirasol's integrative eating disorder treatment program, but plans are afoot to expand the role of wilderness therapy, especially in our adolescent program.

We're aiming to offer bimonthly two- and three-day trips, taking advantage of Arizona's wealth of impossibly lovely wild public lands. Each trip will include a 50-50 split of medically- and emotionally-appropriate clients and the clinical staff required to ensure their safety and support them in their journey. The results of the program will be closely monitored by administering brain maps, depression inventories and similar tools before and after each trip.

To prepare for the upcoming trips, six Mirasol therapists put their packs on their backs and spent two days trekking in a remote valley high in Tucson's Catalina Mountains. The group was led by an experienced backpacker, and included primary therapists, exercise therapists, an aftercare therapist as well as Mirasol's Executive Director, Diane Ryan.

"I think it's important to see what we're capable of — what challenges us as clinicians and as adults — and also assess what we get out of it — what we enjoy and what we struggle with," says Mirasol Primary Therapist, Jenna Jarrold.

There were plenty of challenges to go around, from preparing (and eating!) dehydrated food to keeping your balance while dancing across roaring mountain streams on slippery boulders with pack on your back. But although nearly all of them were beginning backpackers, each one met their challenges with grace and gusto, and they were clearly inspired both by their surroundings and by their ability to overcome every obstacle.

For Primary Therapist Jamelynn Evans, the weekend was all about connection: "Nature really helps me connect within," she reports, "but also connect with the other women in the group."

Almost by definition, eating disorders arise from an individual's inability to connect with the self and with others. The limitless ability of the natural world to both challenge and soothe presents opportunities to grow new relationships, and make wilderness interventions a natural fit for both adolescents and adults in treatment.

Challenge courses, hiking and other outdoor activities have always been part of Mirasol's eating disorder treatment program. Beginning in 2006, Ryan began adding wilderness experiences including camping and even caving. The response from clients and staff was overwhelmingly positive. More importantly, EEG brain maps and standard psychological tests demonstrated significant decreases in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"There was a significant improvement in brain functioning for most participants, especially in the beta waves that are generally associated with anxiety," says Ryan. Most clients also reported a decrease in symptoms of depression and an increase in their ability to cope with stress, as measured by a Children's Depression Inventory (CDI) and Coping Skills Inventory (CSI) administered before and after the camping trips.

The visible transformation that occurs during Mirasol's adventure therapy program is a huge source of inspiration to clients and their families as well as Mirasol staff.

Music Credits

"Balada Fada" featuring André Coelho, from the album ODYSSEIA by M-PeX
"When", from the album Spin Day and Emotional Godfather by Spin Day
"The Long Awaited Rains", from the album The Well by saQi

Psych Central Award