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Youths learn the ropes

March 15, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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An experience with ropes courses leads an adolescent center to more use of hands-on therapies

The director of a South Carolina treatment center for adolescents consistently sees that young people in treatment learn more by doing than by sitting passively in group therapy. “You can’t sit in a circle and expect kids to maintain focus if all you do is talk to them,” says Mike Dennis, director of the William J. McCord Adolescent Treatment Facility in Orangeburg.

For about four years the center staff would take youths in inpatient treatment to a ropes course located more than half an hour from campus. The outdoor courses, which include high and low elements and emphasize team building and personal development skills, have become a popular element in some adolescent addiction treatment settings.

While the South Carolina center’s staff no longer sponsors these outings for a variety of reasons, it continues to emphasize experiential therapies and even harbors ideas of the center having its own ropes course someday.

“We’d love to have the money to construct our own course,” Dennis says.

During the time the center took youths off-site for ropes course activity, it hired a counselor who had a significant background in experiential therapy. The center stopped visiting ropes course sites about 18 months ago, and has since emphasized more in-house experiential activities under that staff member’s direction.

Center’s experience
Today’s ropes courses, with high elements usually constructed in trees or made from utility poles, are less about fitness and more about personal development. The use of climbing harnesses and other safety apparatus mitigates risk to the participant, although Dennis says the center always would receive a parent’s permission before a youth could participate. Most of the participating youths took to the activity fairly quickly, he says.

A member of the counseling staff and a medical professional also would accompany the adolescents on the visit to one of two ropes courses the center used (one of which was operated by an alcohol and drug commission in Sumter that used the course mainly in substance abuse prevention programming).

Dennis said his center found that because the youths would encounter a new counselor staffed by the ropes course operators when they made the visits, it often would take the young people a while to relate to that new person. In addition, the other counselor would not know anything in particular about each youth’s traits—and in turn about which buttons to push to see how the person might react in a stressful situation.

In addition, the center began to see the daylong visits for the youths as a one-shot deal that was not having substantial long-term impact. “They were having a good time, and they were learning things, but we were not really reinforcing these lessons with the same type of experiential activity when they came back,” Dennis says.

Now that the center has on staff a counselor with an experiential therapy background, it can more easily integrate such activities into its everyday program—while avoiding the costs of relying on visits to someone else’s facility.

Dennis emphasizes the importance of having qualified staff in place to lead experiential activities. “You need people who understand and want to work with adolescents,” he says. “They have to be patient in allowing adolescents to process the information, and not rush in to tell them things.”

On-site activity
For one activity now used on the William J. McCord Center campus, the center built 12-foot-long “skis” with ropes attached, for a “low ropes” type of activity it can conduct on-site. In the activity, teams of six to eight youths use one set of these skis in an attempt to move from one end of a pavement course to the other, with no one’s body touching the pavement during the exercise, Dennis explains.

Clearly, if one youth isn’t moving in coordination with the others, the entire group will fail. The exercise teaches communication and teamwork, and Dennis says it offers a glimpse into participants’ personalities and behaviors.

“We tend to see previous behaviors come out,” such as cursing, being verbally aggressive, or being passive-aggressive, Dennis says. The goal is to try to encourage more productive responses in situations when the client is angry—a lesson that will serve the youth well in early recovery.

In experiential exercises such as these, the participants will elect a group leader. Staff will be able to observe the leader’s level of success in formulating a plan and communicating it to teammates, while also monitoring whether others in the group try to usurp power and undermine the leader, Dennis says. These exercises clearly can reveal a great deal of useful information for treatment.

While ropes courses and similar activities are often used in the corporate world as team building activities for adults, they appear to have a particular usefulness in work with young people.

“Developmentally they have difficulty understanding abstract ideas,” Dennis says of adolescents. “When they participate in activities, they can have that ‘aha!’ moment.”

While Dennis would like to incorporate an on-site ropes course into his center’s activities, some significant barriers to doing so remain for the facility, which is licensed as a psychiatric hospital and for which about two-thirds of the client population is Medicaid-eligible. Certainly there are some liability issues to ponder for any center considering hosting this type of activity.

Overall cost remains the most significant obstacle. Dennis has estimated that when figuring in the cost of the high and low ropes features, the insurance requirements, and the staff certification for conducting the activities, the price tag reaches about $200,000 to $250,000.