Lessons From La Jolla

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

ironmansullyI dawned my running shoes and am back running the single lane jungle roads of Hilo, Hawaii. Having just spent the last week in La Jolla, California at a professional conference, I have a lot to reflect on. I do some of my best thinking while running. I traveled to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) conference with ten of my colleagues from Pacific Quest. Our goal was to tap into the collective wisdom of professionals from around the country, as well as to promote Pacific Quest’s unique outdoor horticultural therapy model. The conference was successful on many levels, as it provided many lessons and insights.

Robert Whitaker, the keynote speaker and author of Anatomy of an Epidemic, captivated conference attendees with his message: The psychological community and public sector must broaden the lens to observe the long term effects of medication in treating mental health instead of falling into the trap of only looking at the short term gains. Whitaker is concerned about the trends in psychopharmacology, and the short sightedness of treating immediate symptoms with medication. While symptoms may be alleviated right away, long-term studies show that patient’s mental health can deteriorate over time.   This strikes a chord with the age-old lesson: true gain comes from hard work. Teachers, coaches, role models, and many doctors prescribe to the idea of hard work. Whitaker didn’t seem to be advocating for throwing all medication out the window, rather, utilizing the long term studies as a means to figuring out which medications are proving safe and effective over time.   Be aware that the pharmaceutical industry has financial incentive to promote products that show immediate results, despite the long-term effects.

Pacific Quest Clinical Director, Dr. Lorraine Freedle, presented in a collaborative extended session on the topic of working with “twice exceptional” (2e) children.   In discussing her presentation, Lorraine highlighted that 2e are typical students in the Pacific Quest population. She spoke to both the potential and vulnerability that stem from being “gifted.” Utilizing case studies, Dr. Freedle reviewed characteristics of 2e students, discussed challenges to treatment, and highlighted effective therapeutic strategies. Dr. Freedle showcased how Pacific Quest utilizes the horticultural therapy environment and the depth of the clinical expertise on the team.

Beyond the intellectual stimulation, as an experiential educator, therapist, and advocate of the mind-body connection, the past week in La Jolla confirmed my belief that in order to learn and teach, we must care for our physical bodies. I witnessed brilliant people give lectures and provide workshops inside the conference halls, while at the same time was surrounded with colleagues getting exercise. People smiled broadly when describing hikes, playing golf, going on runs, surfing, and going for long walks. My PEAK Self lens – that fitness/mental health junky side of me subscribes wholly to the mind-body connection, cheered for my colleagues who were priming their brains to learn (increase critical neurotransmitters) by moving their bodies, improving mood, and increasing energy levels. I am sure the Southern California sun contributed significant vitamin D to the mix.

The therapeutic world is extremely intense and can lead to burnout. Finding a balance of self-care is critical. Healthy bodies equal healthy minds. As I find myself running through the rainforest of Hilo, Hawaii, I bask in the optimal mental health I am earning with each step. I look forward to continuing to contribute to the NATSAP community by promoting Pacific Quest, PEAK Self, and stimulating my mind and body on a daily basis.

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