Every Wednesday at Greenbrier Academy for Girls, a clinical training meeting is held from 12:30pm until 3:30pm. The fact that all clinicians are required to spend three hours a week devoted to skill development is in itself rare. As I looked around the room, it occurred to me that all present were seasoned clinicians with the average range of experience in the field being close to 15 years. All have at minimum a Masters degree and several have obtained their PhD. Perhaps even more amazing, all were enthralled as L. Jay Mitchell presented methods to work with teenagers and their families that none had ever been exposed to in their years of training. In fact, one PhD stated that the intensity, professionalism and effectiveness of what was presented was beyond anything he had ever experienced previously.
Generally, the counseling approach favored in programs designed to help teens are based upon very traditional methodologies, despite often less than satisfactory results. During the interview process, perspective clinicians are questioned as to their approach, with the general answer leaning toward eclecticism. I have worked in numerous settings for close to 30 years and have never been asked any questions about the effectiveness of my techniques, how I measure my” “success rate” or any philosophical questions about what creates change in the human being. Perspective candidates at Greenbrier will immediately become aware of the need to challenge their presuppositions about how to be effective and be required to stretch their skill set and expectations beyond any level they have experienced in previous positions. This commitment to providing the best possible service as well as intensely examining the very tenets of the fields in which they have been trained occurs on a daily basis directly because of the passion, and in my opinion, genius, of L. Jay Mitchell.
When I first met L. Jay, I somewhat naïvely came to the conclusion that he had simply combined a number of techniques and modalities from the broad disciplines of psychology, social work and counseling rehab. However, as we began to work together, it became immediately apparent that he had a perspective and thought process that was truly innovative and unique. I was witness to an unrelenting drive to question the effectiveness of the programs that he developed and to ensure ongoing improved outcomes. As opposed to simply replicating the prevailing techniques and methodologies, I witnessed L. Jay constantly reading, discussing and challenging the status quo. He sought the opinion and services of the brightest minds in the field.
His ongoing relationship with Dr. Brent Slife is a prime example of L. Jay’s commitment to excellence. Dr. Slife is the chairman of the American Psychological Association’s Theoretical and Philosophical Division. Dr. Slife has been a chief proponent of the field of psychology known as relationality. However, he was doubtful that the principles could be fully applied in a “real-life” situation. Additionally, because of the highly sophisticated nature of relationality, there was doubt whether it would be effective with an adolescent population. Dr. Slife acknowledged being astounded with the implementation and effectiveness of the theory in a practical setting at Greenbrier Academy.
It is popular in self-psychology to hear of the need to “find oneself”. One tenet of relationality is it is not about finding oneself but creating oneself. It is proposed that this is done primarily through interaction with others. Applying the principles of relationality has resulted in some profound observations that tend to contradict the prevailing mindset regarding adolescence. What has been noted is that as young people develop mindfulness about how their actions and reactions affect others, they begin to adopt a much more altruistic mindset. The narcissism that is so characteristic of adolescence begins to recede, and they demonstrate a desire that is almost insatiable to become a better person. While it is acknowledged that past events may contribute to a “life story”, the therapeutic modalities employed allow teens—notably the girls at Greenbrier Academy—to let go of old limiting beliefs. As these beliefs recede, they are introduced to the idea of what positive contributions they have to offer to the world. Through granting themselves “permission” to embrace their sense of personal destiny, they develop a sense of life purpose. This nurturing of potentiality becomes a keystone of the emotional growth process that is often minimized in a traditional psychodynamic approach.
Stepping outside of conventional thought often provokes controversy. Unfortunately, there are many areas in mental health that seem to be dictated by maintaining the status quo. L. Jay once said, “Most people want a lot of sameness with a little difference. Perhaps it would be wise to investigate a lot of difference with a little sameness.” L. Jay has often remarked that there is no growth or change without adversity. As one of the founders of the field the wilderness therapy, there was a great deal of initial skepticism about the value of being placed in an outdoors setting. Some 35 years later, wilderness therapy has come to be recognized as one of the most powerful interventions for young people who have been caught in the valueless morass that is the defining element of current adolescent culture. Several years ago, I was attending a national wilderness therapy conference and during a panel discussion, I listened to leaders in the field constantly acknowledge innovations that have been developed years and years ago by L. Jay Mitchell. My respect and admiration for him only grew when the next year at a traditional psychotherapy conference I met Robert Dilts, one of the founding fathers of the field of psychology known as neuro- linguistic programming (NLP). When I told him that I work with L. Jay, he began to enthrall me with stories about the discussions they had shared during the formative developmental stage of NLP.
Once again, L. Jay is breaking new ground. He has taken a hard look at traditional therapeutic boarding schools and decided there are ways to produce more effective outcomes. His emphasis on training, skill refinement and developing the most powerful way to intervene on young people’s lives is unrelenting. In just three years, Greenbrier Academy for Girls gained a national reputation for the outstanding therapeutic work that is accomplished. At a time when other schools are struggling, Greenbrier Academy’s enrollment has increased every year, and now operates at full capacity, with a waiting list. The strength of a relational-based model, inspired by the vision and leadership of L. Jay, has sparked spirited debate at national conferences about what factors create the desire for change. Research currently being done at Greenbrier Academy is examining some of the limitations of the mental health diagnostic system and how a relational approach offers a non-pathologizing alternative. It has taken courage, tenacity and faith to proceed down the road less traveled. Greenbrier Academy has been able to blaze this new trail because of L. Jay’s willingness to challenge the status quo.