These days, Take a Hike Foundation’s mental health and education program is in high demand. As they expand to schools on Vancouver Island, we catch up with Take a Hike Clinical Counsellor turned Director of Communications Virginia Chomley to chat about the program, its impact, and its future.
Why is the Take a Hike program needed?
Students that come to Take a Hike have complex needs that require additional support that many have struggled to access prior to Take a Hike. These needs can include mental health or behavioural challenges, learning disabilities, past trauma, substance use, risk of gun and gang involvement, or non-attendance. They are issues that are disruptive to the students’ lives and which they may be coping with in destructive ways.
So, what does Take a Hike do differently than mainstream schooling to address these complex needs?
We are one of the few programs in the province with full-time mental health clinicians embedded in the classroom. The focus is on prevention and early intervention. Students receive a lot of support in the Take a Hike program. The students and a team of four staff and dedicated volunteers spend all day every day together, and that includes three multi-day wilderness trips each year. The classroom community quickly begins to feel like a family. Our model is supported by practice-based evidence developed over 20 years of program delivery and by academic research in child and youth development.
What is it about current mental health support for young people that isn’t working?
The mental health supports that exist do work. But it’s getting the youth who need it engaged in that support—or even just able to access it—that can be problematic. Instead of trying to make students come to us, we go to them. We meet them where they’re at, and we use the outdoors and adventure to engage them in learning and clinical counselling. Our clinical counsellors are able to spend intensive and continuous shared time with the same 20 students all year so they develop strong therapeutic relationships and students make continuous progress.
No doubt part of the challenge is stigma related to mental health. What are some of the misconceptions you’ve had to tackle?
It mainly revolved around making the distinction that we’re a mental health program, not a mental illness program. Everyone has mental health, but not everyone has mental illness. Mental health is something that is relevant to everybody who is in the Take a Hike program, regardless of what their history is. Managing school stress, relationships, and self-care is all part of mental health—navigating grade 12 and making decisions about the future can be stressful as it is, and our students have additional challenges they’re working through on top of that. Taking care of our mental health is as important as maintaining good physical and emotional health. It’s relevant to students and it’s really relevant to everyone in society.
Has there ever been any pushback from parents?
Sometimes someone might not understand the benefits of clinical counselling if they haven’t had any experience with mental health supports before, but I don’t think we’ve had pushback around it. At the heart of the success students experience in Take a Hike are the relationships they form with the clinical counsellor, youth worker, teacher, adventure-based learning specialist, volunteers, and other students.
The clinical counsellor is there for the family too. They meet with the parents and caregivers to provide support, and that helps break down barriers as well. I think when parents see how well their student is doing in the program they get onboard pretty quickly too.
How does that help ease fears about clinical counselling?
Well, if a student is having a chat with a therapist while walking alongside them on a hike or while setting up a tent, it’s more like a casual conversation than a clinical appointment and it’s experienced in a different way. It’s like chatting with a trusted friend, but that friend happens to be a trained therapist who can provide guidance and expertise.
The therapist is there for the family too. They meet with the parents and caregivers to provide support, and that helps break down barriers as well. To this day there are students who think that I was a teacher in the program! They didn’t think of me as a clinician. I was just part of their support network, part of the family.
In a given classroom, there could be quite a variety of needs. How do teachers manage to provide support to each student?
The teacher is supported by a team. There’s a full-time youth worker, whose role is to jump in if a student is being disruptive or experiencing challenges in the classroom. There’s the clinical counsellor, who’s there to support the students’ mental health and emotional well-being. And then there are our adult volunteers, many of whom are training to be counsellors or youth workers or are retired professionals giving their time. We’re very community driven, and this allows us to provide students with a lot of individual attention and support, as well as individual learning plans that meet their unique and changing needs.
Who are your volunteers?
They’re supervised by the clinical counsellor who guides our trauma-informed approach. Volunteers don’t discipline, only support. Their main role is to be there and support students in academics, or support the teacher with classroom needs. If the teacher, youth worker, and counsellor are all busy working with a student the adult volunteers can hold the space. When we go on field trips, we also have adventure-based learning specialists who are trained in their field and can help with student issues as well.
Let’s talk more about getting outdoors. How does that help?
Getting outdoors to spend time in nature away from the stress and distractions of social media and harmful substances provides students with a new experience of themselves, and of learning. Having a therapist with students to work through challenges in real-time helps them process thoughts and emotions in the moment so they can move forward and better focus on learning and growth.
How are power dynamics addressed?
We really try to meet students where they’re at and on their level. Take a Hike staff participate in all of the activities, so the students get to know the staff as much as the staff get to know the students. Each day begins with “circle,” where the clinical counsellor asks a reflective question that is meant to facilitate social and emotional learning. It’s usually something that encourages students to reflect on their own values, habits—their internal world. Something like, “Think back to the biggest challenge of your life. What helped you to overcome that?” The students answer the question—and so do the staff! The shared experiences, being open and emotionally vulnerable while also being supported, really helps to break down the barriers.
What about power dynamics between students?
Well, circle also encourages empathy. The clinical counsellor mediates the conversation, helping students who are less comfortable expressing themselves to feel supported, and the students who are more confident to be mindful that everyone is getting a chance to be seen and heard.
The physical challenges also help to put the students all on the same playing field. Someone might be physically very capable, but struggling with the challenge of being away from home. These experiences all encourage students to consider and empathize with another person’s experience, especially when they are discussed in circle and students become more aware of experiences different from, and similar to, their own.
During the spring multi-day wilderness trips toward the end of the school year, the students write in their journals about each person in the camping group, and it’s really heartening to hear how the students have come to care for each other and appreciate the group.
How well has the Take a Hike program been received by schools?
When we speak to school districts their response is consistently that the program is just what they need and would be perfect for their students. Once we developed our Theory of Change and reviewed our language and literature, the response was increasingly positive. We basically listened to what school districts wanted and then, in their own language, explained how we could deliver that, which increased their engagement with Take a Hike.
What’s been the impact of Take a Hike in terms of graduation rates?
To put it in context, 16% of students in BC fail to graduate from high school, and for students in alternate programs that number is 63%. Over the past five years, 88% of our students have graduated—that’s higher than the 84% provincial average. In 2019, 97% of our students graduated.
That’s amazing. What about long-term impact?
We’re actually working with PWC to evaluate the social return on investment in Take a Hike, and that study is near completion. Early findings show long-term improvements in mental health and physical health, and very high rates of students continuing into post-secondary education. Based on our 2017 graduates, 80% were enrolled in post-secondary education within one year of graduating from the Take a Hike program.
What metrics are Take a Hike and PWC using to measure that?
Here’s what we’re looking at:
- Mental Health and Addictions
- Improved mental wellbeing of individual
- Reduced problematic substance abuse
- Reduced reliance on mental health support services
- Physical Health
- Improved physical wellbeing of individual
- Reduced reliance on medical support services
- Participation in the workforce and Post-secondary education/ vocational training
- Reduced homelessness
- Reduced crime
How has working with SVP helped Take a Hike over the years?
SVP has supported Take a Hike through two stages of growth. Through our partnership with SVP we were able to develop our organisation capacity, which allowed us to scale the program. It was due to that support that we were able to develop our Theory of Change and begin to speak in the language that the school districts needed to hear, which ultimately helped us increase our reach to more vulnerable youth and their families.
You’re an Alumni Investee now. What lies ahead for Take a Hike?
We recently opened our first classroom on Vancouver Island in partnership with the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District and we’re in discussion with another two school districts on Vancouver Island who have a desperate need for our program in their community.
We’ve also been approached by half the school districts in the province. The Take a Hike program is ready to scale and the only thing holding back expansion is funding. We’re working hard to make the Take a Hike program accessible to every school district in BC with a need, capacity, and desire for the program.
Interested in learning more about Take a Hike and their mission? They’ll be participating in our upcoming Alumni Investee Panel at the SVP Fall Mingle 2019.