Utah is home to 47 residential and wilderness treatment programs geared to help students experiencing distress, impairment and dysfunction, according to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs.
The intimate, holistic community at Westminster College is the ideal place for a student who’s struggling to get their feet on the ground, said Ellen Behrens, a professor in the master’s counseling program who specializes in wilderness and residential therapy research. That’s why she said it’s no coincidence that Westminster has a number of students who previously attended treatment programs.
“There is a network of treatment centers that all talk to each other about colleges that promote the best transitions,” Behrens said. “Word has gotten out that Westminster is a good transition because of its small class sizes, intimate community and engaged culture.”
Annie Brown, a junior cognitive psychology major from North Carolina, attended a wilderness therapy program in Hawaii before ending up at a small residential treatment center in Salt Lake City.
After finishing treatment and moving elsewhere, she said she began to appreciate the outdoors and decided to move back to Utah.
“I knew that there were mountains and some fun things to do in Utah, but I didn’t realize that I could literally go to class and then ski in the afternoon,” Brown said.
Alexa Hudson, who teaches in Westminster’s outdoor education and leadership department, said she believes Utah’s landscapes have positive effects on many students throughout their treatment process.
Hudson worked on and off at a wilderness therapy program called Second Nature from 2008–2010 and said many students are attracted to the simplicity and the lack of technology and interruptions when outside.
“Most classically, students would arrive in the program extremely resistant, but by the end they would be invested in the program, invested in the group and, most importantly, invested in themselves and their personal growth,” Hudson said.
Over time, she said Utah’s beautiful landscapes become a place of comfort and peacefulness for many — and by the end, they sometimes don’t want to leave.
“All of the staff are really into the outdoors,” Hudson said. “And living in an environment where you’re surrounded by outdoor enthusiasts can change your perspective a bit.”
When she lived in Utah during high school, Brown said she didn’t have the same relationship with the outdoors that she does now.
“I didn’t have any desire to come back to Utah because what I had seen of Utah was treatment and that’s it,” she said.
Brown said that attending Westminster has played a huge role in transforming her viewpoint of Utah from a small bubble of control to a broad spectrum for opportunity and enhancement.
“The Westminster community has asked me the questions of who do I want to be and what do I want to do, as opposed to being told those things in treatment,” she said. “There are people here really wanting to get to know who I am and what I’m about rather than what’s wrong with me.”
Connor Edson, a junior psychology major from Virginia, ended up staying in Utah after attending Aspiro Wilderness Therapy Program in Sandy and Gateway Academy, a residential treatment center in Draper.
Edson said he needed to temporarily separate from his family, so his dad found a “camping” program in Utah.
His goal at the wilderness program was to repair the damaged relationships with his family, but he didn’t know how much the program would change his perspectives.
“Treatment programs definitely have a profound impact on people’s lives,” Edson said. “It was a positive experience that created flexibility within my life.”
Behrens said she believes these programs work because of their comprehensive, concerted efforts to advance people’s maturity, which is related to making decisions, establishing priorities and values and building meaningful relationships.
At Gateway Academy, Edson said he was also able to incorporate many activities he liked into his life because the academy was strongly affiliated with outdoor education.
During his college application process, he and his family agreed that staying in Utah and attending Westminster would be the best option, offering him the chance to receive a good education while still receiving support from the treatment center.
“If I was able to leave Gateway Academy and be fully independent, I could have gone to college anywhere,” Edson said, but added that college isn’t as overwhelming as it would have been without some of the things he learned there.
For Anna Beyer, a junior public health major from Massachusetts, treatment enabled her to learn about financial responsibility and independence — tools that have helped her navigate college and living on her own.
Beyer moved to Utah in 2013 and attended three different treatment programs until 2015 to help with alcohol-related issues.
“During the Wingate Wilderness Program I attended, I had fallen in love with being outside and hiking,” she said.
After she graduated from treatment, she wanted to attend college on the East Coast. But after touring multiple schools, she realized they were a lot like her hometown, which was an unhealthy environment for her.
“I was mainly okay with staying in Utah for school because it was the only other community I knew besides home,” she said. “And I knew going back home wasn’t good for me.”
Editor’s note: Reporter Molly Karasick first came to Utah as part of a residential treatment program.