The Missoulian recently published a series about residential boarding schools in Montana. As mentioned in the series, these programs aren’t limited to Montana. The exact number of programs nationwide is unknown because they are largely unregulated, but most follow the same format and trajectory: wilderness, therapeutic boarding school, aftercare.
Some programs are better than others. I know this firsthand because I went to two of them when I was in high school. In March 2010, I attended a wilderness program in Utah, followed by a therapeutic boarding school in West Virginia from June 2010 to June 2011. Like many students, I felt that there were positives and negatives to each program. That helped me be objective in my reporting, and understanding their range of experiences also helped me connect with sources.
I was a junior in high school dealing with a range of mental health issues when I arrived at my wilderness program, issues that had previously required inpatient treatment at traditional treatment centers. I was in and out of treatment but I kept returning to old behaviors. I wanted help.
I arrived at the wilderness program with the understanding that I would be there for 30 days, during which time I could get help and receive school credits. Instead, I was there for more than three months, followed by a year in a therapeutic boarding school.
The wilderness program helped me, but that was largely due to the therapist I worked with there. He provided an individualized approach, focusing specifically on the issues I was there for, and more importantly, the underlying causes. He didn’t claim that he would treat all of my issues, but he worked with me to make them better. I also worked with staff who, I believe, truly cared. One practiced yoga with us, another brought her dog to the field. Almost all of them invested in us emotionally.
I understand that it's common to have conflicting emotions about programs because I was exposed to the dangers of the unregulated industry when I was subsequently sent to an all-girls therapeutic boarding school.
My parents were told that I would return to old habits if I didn’t attend another program, and the school touted hours of extensive therapy, rigorous academics and a variety of alternative therapies such as equine therapy, drumming and falconry.
I quickly progressed through levels based on a concept called “relationality,” which the founder of our school said he invented even though he is not a licensed therapist and has no formal training, other than experience running programs that have since closed. Girls were required to hold each other accountable and vote on each other's progress, which led to rumors and character attacks.
Each week, my parents tried to find ways to come up with payment, draining my college savings and their retirement. I began questioning the treatment I was receiving. Untrained staff held "interventions" and conducted informal therapy sessions. I was prohibited from using the internet, making it difficult to apply for and research colleges. I was also limited to monitored communication and I had no way to tell my parents about problems I encountered. I was exposed to unsupervised time with staff, which led to later issues. The day after I graduated, one particular staff member resigned.
I graduated the program at 18 and still struggled with my mental health until I found the right resources and medications in college. I still struggle with feeling like my mental health is, at times, a result of my flawed character.
Some students had positive experiences with these programs; others didn't. Everyone's are valid, and with better regulation, I'd like to think that more could be positive.