Those struggling with substance abuse and other conditions find support, healing outdoors

Alicia Martinez, a member of the Mountain Center staff, climbs near White Rock in 2017 as part of the organization’s Healthy Transitions program.Gabriella Marks/for the Mountain Center

Michelle Bennett remembers thinking how embarrassing it would be to not reach the top. Suspended on a rock wall with the sun beating down, she wasn’t sure she could do it.

Then from below, words of encouragement rose to meet her. “You’re fine, Michelle,” she recalls one person shouting.

Bennett made it to the top of the rock near Gallup. But she knew she couldn’t have done it alone.

“Going up there and having that encouragement, it made me want to go for it,” she said. “And I believe that the encouragement was the reason I reached the top of the rock.”

Bennett, who lives in Grants, was climbing as part of a program run by the Mountain Center, a New Mexico organization that specializes in wilderness therapy. Executive Director Tony Dixon said the group uses activities such as rock climbing, rappelling, hiking, backpacking and rafting as therapeutic techniques to help clients.

Bennett, 43, said she came to the program in 2017 after being referred by the Cibola County Drug Court. Dealing with an alcohol and meth addiction, she said wilderness therapy helped her better deal with triggers that made her want to use.

“Being in the outdoors and using that for stress relief rather than to turn to alcohol or drugs, it’s another way out,” she said.

Dixon explained activities in nature can help clients create metaphors for their lives. He remembers being in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness with a youth group referred to the program by a drug court. They were in a rapids section and a kid fell into the river. The next boat went by and couldn’t pull him in; the kid was eventually picked up by another raft.

“When he was talking about his experience … to him it was very moving,” Dixon said. “He said, ‘When I got bumped out, it was like when I got caught and I had to go to drug court, and that second boat passing me by was my family being like ‘we don’t know what to do, and we can’t help you.’ And the other boat is drug court coming in to help me out.’ ”

Bennett’s husband, Kevin, 60, also did the Mountain Center program in 2017. Kevin said he was there for an alcohol addiction. He explained that being outside allowed him to focus on more than simply not drinking — something he’d successfully done for eight years before starting again.

“Being sober and recovering are two different things,” Kevin said. “In the eight years, I was really concentrating on being sober, but I hadn’t concentrated on recovery. So this last time around, I focused on recovery.”

Kevin added the program also taught him the importance of relying on others. He said when the group climbed, participants had to depend on people to hold ropes and spot them. The same applies to overcoming addiction, Kevin said.

Another New Mexico outdoor therapy group is Taos Recovery Center, part of Shadow Mountain Recovery Center. Jeremy Lihte, director of community relations for Shadow Mountain, said the organization has 37 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where it brings men in recovery to live for 30 to 90 days.

Lihte said participants do activities such as hiking and going to hot springs as a way of getting out of their heads and into the present. He said he believes in outdoor therapy because it helps get clients away from the hubbub of everyday life.

“You don’t hear sirens at our facilities, you don’t hear honking horns. You hear birds and nature and the wind,” Lihte said. “It’s relaxation, and it’s reconnecting with what the world is supposed to be.”

Outdoor therapy also can be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Lora Blazina, director of clinical services at Life Healing Center — a Santa Fe behavioral health, trauma and addiction treatment group that refers patients to the Mountain Center — said being outside allows people to develop a healthy relationship with nature.

This, she said, is especially valuable for PTSD patients, many of whom came to Life Healing Center after being abused by family members or people they previously trusted.

“They feel they are connecting in nature and they are connecting with something that is safe,” she said.

Psychologists Shauna Joye, based in Georgia, and Zachary Dietrich, who practices in Kentucky, recently studied the impact of outdoor activities on veterans with PTSD and other mental health issues.

The researchers looked at the effect on those who participated in Warrior Expeditions, a program that organizes long-distance wilderness trips for veterans. The psychologists studied the presence and severity of PTSD, anxiety, depression and other issues in 55 veterans starting in 2013, measuring symptoms before and after expeditions.

A 2019 research summary found participants’ mean scores of PTSD, anxiety and depression each dropped after a trip.

Dietrich said outdoor therapy can be helpful for veterans because it allows them to reconnect with others.

“They relearn after combat,” Dietrich said, “that not every human being on the planet is an awful human being.”

Blazina said being outside can help everyone along the mental health spectrum, from those who have been diagnosed to those who are simply feeling anxious. This is particularly relevant in the U.S., as a 2018 poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that 39 percent of adults reported being more anxious than they were a year earlier.

To help deal with mental health issues — as well as to exist in the world — Blazina said people have to form relationships, including with nature.

“A healthy human being is healthy because they’re having successful connections,” she said. “We are relational beings … and that’s relationships with others, it’s relationships with ourselves and it’s relationships with our environment.”