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Q&A With Primary Therapist Jeff Scott, LPC

Jeff works with adolescent boys ages 13-18.

Q: Tell us about yourself— what’s your background and what brought you to Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness?

When I was a teenager, I was really struck with the questions of, “why are we alive?”, “what is the meaning of life?”, and “why are we here?”. I was more of an existentially focused teenager, open to the big questions, and trying to discover what was the purpose of my existence. That line of thinking piqued my curiosity in the liberal arts, philosophy, and psychology. I had a bachelor’s in psychology and a minor in history, but I wanted to study philosophy. So I did a post-baccalaureate in philosophy, in pursuit of exploring this idea of what the meaning of life is, and asking what’s the purpose of our existence.

I actually found philosophy to be a bit too dry and too intellectual; I really wanted to learn, to experience meaningfulness, and to answer the big questions in a more intimate manner. I thought that the world of counseling and therapy would provide that meaningful sort of encounter with another person, would give me the opportunity to help someone else understand their existence, and help them figure out their purpose. So I went to graduate school at the University of Florida for counseling. At that time, I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do with it yet. I knew I wanted to help adolescents, and I knew that I had already fallen in love with wilderness… the ‘wild-ness’ of wilderness. To me, wilderness was that place where all the seekers and mystics went to find out who they were.

In graduate school at USF, there was a professor named Dr. Jeff Larson. He was a Marriage and Family professor from Brigham Young University who was teaching in Florida for two years. I took my Intro to Family Counseling class with him, and he showed us images of teenagers pushing a handcart across the desert in a program where he worked during the summers. That sparked something alive in me, like a calling, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was 23 at the time. So, whereas all my other classmates took the summer to do their graduate internships at mental health agencies and employee assistance programs, I ended up heading out west to Aspen Achievement Academy in Utah, which was one of the first wilderness therapy programs in the US. I spent my summer as an unpaid intern for that program, and I didn’t even care that I wasn’t getting paid. It was just so powerful and life-changing for me to experience that approach to working with adolescents.

After those experiences, it was clear to me what I wanted to do. I worked for a couple of therapeutic boarding schools in Utah, and then moved to work for a program in Samoa for two years. That whole time, I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, backpacking during the summers and hiking in Colorado. I ventured through Red Rock country, figuring out who I was and trying to find my soul’s calling. When I returned, I spent a year or two involved in the Native American church, and I got exposed to ceremonies and vision quests. I really grew to understand the power of ceremony, mythology and land-based rituals as a way of helping find your place in the world. That cemented my desire to be in the wilderness as a healer, a crux of change in nature.

I moved back to Asheville in 2000 to be close to my family. I started working as one of the first therapists at SUWS of the Carolinas. After about 2 and a half years there, I became the first therapist hired at Blue Ridge in 2003, and I’ve been here ever since.

Q: What do you think is so powerful about wilderness therapy, specifically?

To me, I can’t imagine working with teens in other contexts. I think that, to properly develop as a human being, you need to follow two roads in life: you need to follow the route of your village and learn how to live with people, learn the laws and customs of your village, how to connect with others, have reciprocity and empathy with them. But, in order to fully understand your purpose and your existence, you have to spend time with the universe, with nature, in a place where nobody tells you what to think or who to be, where you can learn how to listen to your inner guidance, your spirit, and figure out what you’re truly here for. So I believe that every human needs to traverse the road to the wilderness to figure out who they are and why they’re here.

Q: Why do you choose to work at Blue Ridge?

I really appreciate the program’s clinical expertise, and what intrigued me when I first came on was the focus of using wilderness as an assessment and diagnostic tool. Blue Ridge has worked to differentiate themselves from other wilderness programs that were more austere, so the students have better quality gear and more nutritious food. I think they knew that, in order for kids to reach self-actualization and higher levels of being, they had to be comfortable and safe. So I really appreciate that approach.

I also was drawn to these mountains in the Southern Appalachia because they’re ancient— they’re the oldest mountains on earth. They’re soulful, and the land itself offers an inward, contemplative focus that is ideal for doing soul healing. The nature here lends itself to that depth, the deep inner journey that we aspire to have.

Q: What is the student profile in your group (G3)?

I find that the students I work with are a lot like me when I was their age. They’re often introspective, shy, anxious, internally complex and ruminative kids who are more emotionally fragile. Often, my students don’t come in with a strong sense of self, and they’ve experienced pain because they are sensitive. They need to differentiate from other people, to find their voice and their strengths. I typically work with kids who have been bullied, marginalized, and who don’t yet know how to shine or stand in their power.

Q: How would you describe your treatment approach?

The approach I take has evolved over the years. At the core, I really appreciate object relations therapy. I think about how in wilderness therapy, a group of kids with a variety of experiences really bond and create these intense primary relationships with themselves and the field staff. The intensity of that milieu lends itself to transference, countertransference and projection, so kids reenact the same dynamics of their family of origin when they’re in the group. That helps to illuminate patterns in their relationships in wilderness and at home. So when I work with a wilderness group in real time, I can use the information from those relationships in the milieu to help them to create deeper awareness, and to change.

My general approach is client-centered. I think that every human, every student, every teenager has within themselves the very means to heal themselves. I think that if we, as adults in wilderness therapy, hold a strong container with respect, appropriate boundaries and limits, also with validation and attunement, kids will often do their own work— and I really trust that. When I do a session with a student, I always go with whatever they bring up, because I trust their own internal wisdom and guidance that, sometimes unconsciously, they want to get better and heal themselves. I just help to guide them.

In the last decade or so, I’ve zeroed in on looking at teenagers through more of a developmental lens. I don’t really focus on symptoms or symptom reduction as much, I more focus on, “why is a kid anxious?”, “why are they depressed or having ADHD symptoms?”, “where did they get stuck in their development?”, “what disturbances or traumas or other dynamics got them stuck during key stages of development?”

I look at wilderness as a necessary experience to help teenagers mature when they’re ready. To me, maturity looks like having empathy for others, learning how to be aware of consequences and not think you’re immune from consequences, and beginning to think about how the decisions you make in the moment might affect your future. These things guide you towards a better future for yourself, greater awareness of others, and greater emotional regulation. The bottom line is that most of our students show up immature. I think wilderness is a vessel for helping them become more mature through the experience of it.

Q: You have been with Blue Ridge since the beginning, what do you think about where the program is today?

I think that we are really effective at approaching, assessing, and treating the entire family system. That’s been a strong focus for us, and it’s critical in our work with adolescents. What we do well is help kids to feel safe, seen, acknowledged and validated, and we take great care of their physical safety needs.

Another strength is that we have really trained our field staff to work effectively with kids as paraprofessionals when the therapist isn’t there, and they really support and help students follow through with their treatment plans. I appreciate that we have honed in on our holistic approach with mindfulness and meditation— it’s so critical for the kids I work with who have a lot of anxiety.

Q: Thanks for your time today. One last question: Where can we find you when you’re not at work?

I do a lot of biking, like gravel biking and mountain biking. I’m trying to learn how to play certain Native American flutes, and I try to spend time in the woods hiking and skiing.