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The Healing Power of Science and Nature

SUWS of the Carolinas
Old Fort, North Carolina

On any given day, deep in the pith of the Pisgah National Forest in Old Fort, new stories are unfolding. Stories of discovery and healing. Stories set not to the world’s crash-and-burn pace but rather nature’s gentle rhythm.

Each year, SUWS of the Carolinas welcomes in a cadre of angst-ridden, emotionally overwhelmed, and sometimes angry youth. Adolescents are struggling to keep pace mentally and emotionally with the ever-constant, socially demanding, and often confusing world in which we live. Covid-19 has been particularly cruel to this demographic as isolation presents as an adversary to those already dealing with mental health and substance use issues. Even without Covid-19 stressors, the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that 50% of teenagers have misused illicit drugs.

In the NCDAS’ 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, 10 million young people are in need of substance abuse treatment. Among those millions, only 1 in 10 adolescents diagnosed with substance abuse disorder actually receives the treatment they need and deserve.

This wilderness therapy center is a blessing to parents and their children even though for many, sending their child to SUWS was admittedly a wrenching decision, said Executive Director Daniel Fishburn, LCSW, LCAS, MAC CCS. The center uses the therapeutic qualities of nature to help people, ages 10-17, and their families work through specific challenges in life. Here, the natural rhythm of life drowns out the discord long enough to find their own cadence.

“Nature combined with our programs provide them with a different space and pace that is regulated by nature,” Fishburn explains. “It provides structure, and we teach them how to be safe while learning new coping skills.” While thrusting these unwitting youth into a John Muir-ish experience, the removal of the constant digital din and anxiety-inducing expectations allows for a sensory reset. They rise with the sun, work with their hands, innovate with their minds using what is around them. They begin to discover they are more than their social media profile, their report card, or their college essay. 

Most of their days are spent in the woods with highly qualified staff trained in wilderness survival and clinical therapy. “We create a physically and emotionally safe place for them to build a foundation for healing,” said Fishburn. “Our approach is one of encouragement with accountability. Shame poisons any therapy,” he continues. “Here, they get to be kids.”

With no phones and only minimal familial contact, they form bonds with counselors as well as each other, which feed an essential need for relationships. “Children need physical (not digital) relationships with peers,” he said. There are things an adolescent won’t talk about to a parent or other adult, he explains. Being in a safe, nonjudgmental space that facilitates self-discovery, teaches responsibility, accountability, and healthy coping skills combined with clinical therapy is working for these youth. 

In a recent report the Center for Disease writes, “Beyond getting sick, many adolescents’ social, emotional, and mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan.”

Fishburn agrees saying, that he does not use, for example, the term ‘addict’ with the youth. He goes on to explain that many of them are under so much pressure and their minds at this stage are not fully developed. He does not believe it’s fair or clinically accurate to label them at this stage.

His comprehensive training brings in both administrative and clinical expertise to the program. A clinical social worker, he holds a Master’s in Social Work and has worked in public health as well as substance abuse.

Although new to Wilderness Therapy, he said he fell in love with the people and the programs. He feels that his clinical experience brings a unique perspective to his role as executive director. “It’s beneficial to have clinical experience both for me as the director as well as the staff and youth.”

Working along with Fishburn there is a sizeable staff of credentialed clinicians, medical personnel, wilderness experts, a psychiatrist, and a medical doctor. There are also two very helpful therapy dogs on staff that work hard.

SUWS is licensed by the State of North Carolina as a rehabilitative therapy facility and offers three immersive therapy programs, Bravo and Luna (14-17 age group), Phoenix Program, for addiction treatment (14-17 age group), and the Seasons Program for youth age 10-13. They also provide psychological testing and have a Family Program. “The parents are a big part of the healing process,” he said. “They have homework of their own to do because addiction, anxiety, and other mental issues involve the whole family.”
Their Trails End Program is a moving ceremony that brings together the youth and their parents in a celebratory evening before they “embark on the next stage of their journey.”

When asked about some of his most enduring memories helping these young people heal, discover their potential, and find hope, Fishburn shares a story of a 12-year-old from Boston that successfully went through the program. “I hear from her now, she’s doing great and it’s very rewarding,” he said. One thing he likes to tell those coming in is that SUWS is not an institutional setting with a win or lose outcome. “We’re not trying to make them into what their parents want or think they need to be,” he said. “This is about them discovering who they are.”

Studies have proven that being in nature has healing effects. For youth, especially during a pandemic, information overload with no healthy outlets can be a recipe for problems. Children need healthy skills to cope with a noisy world that moves at break-neck speed. SUWS is helping struggling youth discover freedom and healing using the best of science and nature combined.

SUWS of the Carolinas is located at 363 Graphite Road, Old Fort, NC 28762. They can be reached 24/7 at 828.489.3198. At SUWS wilderness treatment program, students work through addiction, depression, developmental disorders, and behavioral issues with experienced staff members in a supportive outdoor environment free from the stresses and distractions of everyday life. SUWS of the Carolinas operates within the Pisgah National Forest under permits issued by the United States Forest Service (USDA), and is subject to the USDA Civil Rights Non-Discrimination agreement (Form AD-475-C)
PHOTO CAPTION: From left to right:
Therese Masotta (Field Staff), Daniel Fishburn (CEO), Bryan Delaney (Program Director), Kevin Waller, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS (Family Program Manager)
Roo and Red