With as many as one in ten children and young people suffering from mental health problems*, it feels like the idyll of childhood has been lost. But, discovers Fiona Golfar, a charity supported by Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex is using nature to help troubled teens heal their fears and anxieties
Thirteen-year-old Tommy sits in a tree, maybe one of the best climbing trees ever, with branches spreading out from it at 360 degrees. It’s a tree that looks like it wants to hug you with its many arms. Emma and Sal, both pretty 14-year-olds, string their hammocks up between a couple of birch trees near a circle of stumps that surround a campfire. Jack, a cheeky, tow-haired 15-year-old collects firewood in preparation for lunch and Talita, who is 16, is singing Beyoncé in a loud, clear voice as she helps him.
Five young teenagers playing in the shady, sun-dappled woods set in 400 acres of farmland in Essex and home to the Wilderness Foundation. The scene looks idyllic, kids doing what we all know they should be doing, playing.
But these young teenagers are different – visiting here from different parts of the country, all of them have difficult emotional needs and are struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Tommy has completely shut down emotionally; Emma’s anxiety is so bad she has not been to school for two years; Sal can barely speak she is so troubled; Jack is in constant trouble and gets badly bullied at school; and Talita is self-harming and skipping school. Their parents have been referred to Wilderness via schools and social services, and after completing a comprehensive series of referral forms and interviews by a Wilderness therapist via Skype or WhatsApp, the group finds itself here in the woods, the parents having paid for them to attend a residential or day programme that lasts three to five days.
Sitting patiently, keenly watching the scene unfold around her, is Jo Roberts, a friendly and engaging South African woman in her early fifties who is the chief executive of Wilderness UK and also a trained therapist in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and psychotherapeutic counselling. In layman’s terms, NLP is like learning the language of your own mind, while psychotherapeutic counselling focuses on the in-depth relationship jointly created by the therapist and the client. Jo works with a small, dedicated team of helpers and volunteers – Andy, Jo and Helen – who have a diverse range of skills between them, not least of which are how to put up a hammock. They’re also qualified in therapy and outdoor facilitation. How is this helping troubled teens, I wonder? They all look like they are having fun and playing. “Wait,” says Andy, patiently munching on a custard cream. “It’s all going well now but they will start to melt in their own ways soon and that’s when you see the real issues.”
And melt they do. By the end of the day – the group’s third out of the five they spend together, and the one which I have been allowed to observe with the permission of the children, all of whose names have been changed – I see them play manhunt, cry, have a therapy session in the branches of a tree they’ve climbed, get angry, cook sausages, shut down, open up and form bonds between each other that will last long after the week they share together. Between the games and creative therapy – think building a tent and hanging labels with feelings and hopes for the future from its frame – and cooking lunch together around the campfire, Jo runs workshops where the children begin to talk about the problems they are struggling with – anger, anxiety, depression, complex family issues. Jo and her team listen and above all guide the children to come up with tools that they can take away with them. “This is not a quick-fix solution,” says Jo. “They don’t come in one state and leave with a pink bow around their neck. But because we are in nature it helps to calm their neural pathways. They can take on new ideas and patterns from a less defensive position. I see our work more as a circuit breaker. There isn’t the time in a week [there are longer courses available] to have a very psycho-analytical approach, but we do have the opportunity to work with them individually in the group to understand where the behaviour has come from and to give them some tools as to how to manage their emotions going forward.”
The Wilderness Foundation UK was founded in 1976 by Dr Ian Player, an international conservationist, and Sir Laurens van der Post, a writer, explorer and philosopher. Player, who came from South Africa, is known for saving the white rhinoceros from extinction. He created the first two protected wilderness areas in Africa with his Zulu guide Magqubu Ntombela, and founded the Wilderness Leadership School. During and despite apartheid, the pair established a multiracial program that became a global movement dedicated to preserving wild spaces and enabling people to experience them. Out of this movement Wilderness helped to educate conservationists, build leaders and help turn around the lives of troubled young people. Now the UK branch works with schools teaching children from as young as five to connect with farming and nature through curriculum-based education programmes and weekend camps. It was one of the charities chosen by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to receive donations in lieu of wedding gifts. The couple was particularly attracted by the Wilderness Foundation’s Turnaround programme, which helps young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who have mental health issues and other complex needs, many of whom come from violent and challenging backgrounds.
As the day winds down, I can see how the shared physical engagement, tree climbing, the games and even the spontaneous burst of singing while cooking sausages over a fire has helped to connect these five young people. Jo asks them to list their “thorns” and “roses” from the day. They share their fears from the morning, what they feel they have achieved and talk about wanting to stay connected with each other. All except Sal who lies on the ground complaining of a stomach ache; her fear is palpable. What she really wants is Helen to rub her back and give her affection. I wonder if there will ever be enough affection to make her feel safe. But the others seem to have loosened up during the course of the day. Even Tommy, who is selectively mute most of the time, is able to hesitantly express his feelings of cautious optimism about how he can try to communicate with his dad. Soon the week will end and there will be follow-up sessions, with most of these teens staying in touch. The combination of the power of the group and the power of nature is undeniable. What happens in these woods is truly magical.
Wildsmith Skin donates £500 to the charitable causes featured in The Wildsmith Papers. To find out more about the Wilderness Foundation and make a donation, please visit: https://wildernessfoundation.org.uk/donate/