Alexander Rose: psychologist and Adventure Therapy pioneer
Alex is a super passionate Outdoor Therapist and Psychologist that happens to be a good friend and my support for this blog. In this conversation we dig deep on what “Adventure Therapy” is and we get his perspective as a professional in the field.
8 min read
Alex has been deeply connected to nature and outdoor sports since he was a kid. He shaped his life through living simply, travelling light and playing outdoors. It made sense for him to bring this approach to his psychology practice where his patients could enjoy the benefits and learnings that he experienced through this lifestyle that our culture calls adventure.
After graduating in Teaching and Sports Sciences, he discovered that understanding the mind and actively helping others finding a positive state of mind was his thing. He is a Clinical Psychologist and University Lecturer, being a pioneer in the use of adventure and outdoor therapies in Spain at Asociación Experientia. Since 2008 he has been actively engaged in diverse international organisations to empower and broadcast this approach to mental health and wellbeing around the world.
I've known Alex now for more than 10 years and we've shared a few moments through rock climbing, bike touring and eating hearty meals home-made by his wife Laura. Last September we caught up in Sydney right after he attended the 8th International Adventure Therapy Conference in NSW (Australia), and we had a chance to discuss this common thread in our lives which is the quest of a healthy mental state through adventure, nature and purposeful experiences.
Alex, can you briefly tell us a bit more about the approach to counselling or psychological therapy through adventure?
Can you visualise "regular therapy”, sitting in a room with a professional helping you with mental health problems or guiding you towards answers about yourself? Adventure Therapy is a therapeutic approach and methodology that twists the space and the activity/medium, but the aim is the same.
We can use a climbing route, a boulder problem, a hike or just the nature as the context to let the magic happen. However, Adventure Therapy varies worldwide. Each country or region has developed its own philosophy taking into account political and sociocultural aspects. These last years more and more professionals recognise the power of nature and outdoor activities to help their clients.
Is there much (or any) scientific research proving the benefits of Adventure Therapy as a builder of positive thinking patterns, mental skills and mindsets? What are the main streams on which scientific research has focused?
Interesting and valuable research is conducted all around the globe and constantly presented in numerous papers and conferences. The results show improvement of self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy and social skills just to name a few. The Meta-Analysis conducted by Bowen and Neill in 2013 is helpful to understand this a bit more in depth.
Traditionally, this approach has been largely focused on youth at risk and struggling adolescents, but there are many other valuable streams of work (people with severe mental health problems, adults with cancer, soldiers with PTSD, young adults with Asperger's, victims of bullying, etc.).
Is this therapy approach recognised or approved by psychological and medical institutions? Who can offer it?
Recognition really depends from country to country, since their sociocultural and political aspects play a huge role. Some examples: the Adventure Therapy industry in the United States and Canada is doing a big effort raising the profile as an evidence-based practice in order to obtain official recognition; Australia is having support from the Government through community-based practices; Germany and Austria are developing Climbing Therapy programs in collaboration with hospitals; in Spain, a Hospital is designing a project to build a climbing wall to help their inpatients; Finland has a large tradition of including Adventure Therapy in mental health settings…
What was exactly made you personally embrace this way of work?
I know for sure that nature and adventure unconsciously kept me on track when I was a teenager. Climbing, hiking, sailing, kayaking, travelling, living with the basics... Being in nature helped me enormously by shaping the way I am now. After working as an outdoor facilitator and having experienced myself the power of nature to empower the personal development and positive change in the groups I was working with, I felt the need to dig deeper and to research about Adventure Therapy. That was back in 2007/08, and ever since I have committed myself to introduce Adventure Therapy in Spain and to help develop the field especially throughout Europe.
Is Adventure Therapy suitable for any patient?
This is a really good question! In my opinion, everybody can benefit from nature and adventure-based practices, even though I would like to differentiate between therapeutic and therapy. A walk in the forest, a conversation around a climbing route, a night hike may be helpful to get insight and help yourself feel better, or even change behaviours or patterns. To become "therapy" it needs to be facilitated by a mental health professional and to dig deeper in psychological aspects.
Can Adventure Therapy be used as the main treatment medium or does it need to stay as a support of the traditional "sitting in a room" therapy?
As a Clinical and Health Psychologist, you have to find the best way to help the people you are working with. That means that you may design a specific “room” treatment plan and implement outdoor sessions, design an adjunctive Adventure Therapy treatment plan or offer a specific adventure program to enhance or focus on specific topics. It really depends on patients/clients and the sociocultural context.
How do you design the treatment for each patient/disorder? How do you measure the progress?
It depends if it is an individual or group therapy plan. For groups we usually work in collaboration with mental health institutions and design tailored programs addressing specific needs defined by the institution. On an individual basis, in my case, the goals may be less specific and based on an experiential and phenomenological approach. Progress is measured with pre-post research, ongoing and process-oriented questions along the program and observing how the patients incorporate new mechanisms and learnings into their daily life.
What are the main obstacles to your practice?
The main challenge, in our case, is that Adventure Therapy is not known in Spain and therefore there is no official recognition. To improve this, we try to share our experiences at conferences and implement research in our programs. Psychological treatment is still a stigma and that makes it difficult for some people to reach out to professionals. And finally, affordability is a big issue as individuals and families have to pay most of the times for their treatment.
Is this approach to therapy/psychology just for diagnosed disorders or can it be used for personal growth programs as well?
The span of intervention is really large, from addressing severe mental health problems to personal skills enhancement. The main difference has to be the knowledge and skills of the facilitators and therapists (and/or the team) in each case.
Can you tell us about a case you worked on recently through rock climbing and what was the outcome?
I had the chance recently to help an adopted young adult diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He was isolated at home, with no motivation beyond playing online and smoking cannabis on his own. After interviewing his parents, I offered a list of several outdoor-adventure activities he could choose from. We started the treatment in an indoor climbing wall.
For him, it was a huge effort to leave his comfort zone and he would have never enrolled "normal therapy", so that was a really positive start. During the sessions, he realised that he could accomplish further more than what he expected and started to go out and reconnect with some friends, and finally looking for a job. He valued also his physical condition and tried to smoke less, starting to do more exercise on his own. Nowadays he has finished his diploma in leisure activities and works with children.
The setting, the non-formal therapeutic space, the less “clinical” approach, the feeling of success, the physical activities and the games we played helped him finding internal motivations towards life goals, increased the range of coping mechanisms and decreased the urge for substance abuse.
In your opinion, what kind of mental benefits and cognitive skills can one train and acquire through the practice of rock climbing and bouldering?
Dancing on a wall can be considered a mindful and meditative practice based on movement where you have to cope using your own mechanisms, trusting yourself and the belayer. You can strengthen the connection with yourself, the wall and the environment. You can learn to focus and transfer this to your daily life. You can observe and improve your cognitive and behavioural patterns: how you cope in different situations; how much time you invest in deciding to move and step forward; what makes you fall; how you face your fears; or even explore how you interact with others depending on your inner state of mind. Daily life mental walls are easy to recognise and comprehend being high up at the wall.
What would be your advice for somebody who is having a rough time and does not know where to start - how to climb their own mental walls?
I would encourage to look for a professional that could help to climb smoother from one grip to the next and to enjoy again the view from the top. Taking these steps requires some self-confidence but definitely what one gets when reaching the top is worth the journey. I would also encourage joining an emotionally safe community and sharing fears and worries. Remember, even Alex Honnold (Free Solo) had a team behind him.