How They Got There: A Conversation With Wilderness Therapist Brad Reedy

Brad Reedy grew up surfing in Orange County. He originally planned to be an English teacher, but a chance internship pushed him toward the practice of wilderness therapy instead. With a few colleagues, Reedy launched Second Nature, a treatment group dedicated to helping troubled preteens, teens and young adults. Four years ago, he stepped back from the therapy side to focus on outreach and growing the organization, which now has four sites in three states. As the face of the company, Reedy travels 130,000 miles a year. We met on one of his recent trips to New York.

How did you get here?

During my graduate work at Brigham Young University, I got an internship with a wilderness therapy group. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but my professor referred me to them. I just showed up one day. I didn’t really know what wilderness therapy was, and I wasn’t extraordinarily comfortable with camping, but it didn’t take long for me to realize it was one of the most potent and effective ways of doing therapy I’d ever seen. I started working with adolescent boys and girls, treating mood disorders, oppositional disorders, drug addiction. The movement that I saw them experience in a period of six or seven weeks was more profound than I saw in any of the out-patient treatment centers that I’d worked at or even any of the residential treatment centers that I had worked at. I just fell in love with it.

What is it about wilderness therapy that works?

I think about what makes it effective a lot. I think it definitely is unplugging. And I think that is more profound today than it was 15 years ago. A lot of what I attribute the success to is what we call primitive living. We provide them supplies. We provide them food and all the gear that they need, but they have to do everything themselves every day. They have to build their own shelter. They have to cook their own food. They make fire every day to cook on and stay warm by. They do it in small groups of eight to 10 students. Every lesson you want to impart to them is implicit in daily living.

Did you ever see yourself as a businessman?

No. I got a Ph.D in family therapy, and I thought I might have a private practice but I’m not trained in business. It just kind of happened. A few of us were working at another wilderness therapy program that now doesn’t exist, and we wanted to do it better. Our contribution to the industry is that we made it more clinical. We brought really powerful traditional, clinical therapies to wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy was great and we loved where we worked, but we thought everything that was holding it together was therapist driven. We started it ourselves, and we made every decision based on what was clinically best for the kid. That was always the reference point.

What I brought to it business-wise was customer services. I don’t know where I learned it—maybe when I worked at the Gap in college?—but there’s no excuse for anything less than perfect customer service. That means that our therapists and our office staff do perfect customer service for everyone that was a referral source, a parent, or anyone else. That’s what has made us successful.

Customer service is one of the last things you would think of as being important for a parent struggling with an addicted child. But on some level, it makes a lot of sense.

That’s what it’s all about. I’m in New York today to do a parent support group. Nobody in our industry does this; we do it for free. I fly out here; parents don’t pay for it. It’s just a service. I’ve always said that if you have a good plumber who does great customer service, he’s a great plumber. But if you have a great plumber who does poor customer service, he’s a poor plumber. When parents send their kids to us, it’s the love of their life. They are giving their kid over to the unknown, so in the first day when they get three, four, or five phone calls from us letting them know how their kid is doing, it’s important.

Why did you step away from the therapy side?

About four years ago, we decided that we need someone in an outreach position. I speak at universities. I talk to parent groups. I talk to psychiatrists and therapists all over the country. I pulled out of being a primary therapist a few years ago. I still get to work with the parents probably more than most therapists, but I don’t get to work with the kids at much. I am going back into the field in a month for five months. I’m excited about that because I get to work with the kids on the ground and with the staff, but I’ve lost some of that.

I’m sure you hear a lot of tough stories from the people you treat. Is that side of it ever overwhelming?

No. There are parts of the job that are hard, but it’s almost never about the clients. It’s about the paperwork, the politics of a referral source, or the marketing. It’s all that other nonsense. It’s dealing with an employee or co-worker who can be difficult. I had about 1,000 clients on my own personal caseload, and I had some difficult ones. But the more difficult they were, the more stimulating my job was, the more inspiring my job was. There were times of burnout where it was hard to do the work, but that was about me. I had to change. It didn’t matter what I was doing. So I would just work through it, invest more, and the burnout would just kind of fade away.

You sound like a total jock. You grew up in Orange County, where you surfed and did other outdoor sports. It’s not surprising you ended up here.

Yeah. I also was one of the kids that we deal with, so that predisposed me to this. I was going to be an English teacher, and then I took a child development course. I realized that was the way I thought, so I changed majors over to family science. The problems that I had as a child and the times I was sent to the counselor’s office as a kid was what really set me up to do this job.

You’re on the board of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs Board. What do you do with them?

We’re really a trade organization that does lobbying and government relations in Washington D.C. I’ve been out there half a dozen times to meet with Senators and Congressmen and women to work on issues that are relevant to the laws they are developing regarding childcare and treatment. That was why we started our organization. We provide training for continuing education units. I sit on the board to help plan and develop the national and regional conferences. That would be one of the parts of the job that can at times be laborious, but I decided to get involved to give back. This industry has given me and us a lot. We could have let someone else do it, but my partners and I decided to accept the request they made to have me on the board.

You’re the public face of Second Nature. I assume that was intentional?

When we were decided to have someone in this role, we decided it was me because it’s also what I like to do. I like to talk publicly. I like to teach.

Where do you go from here?

I just finished the first draft of a book in the last month.

Congratulations.

Thank you. That actually feels good, because it has taken a long time. I’m going to be working on getting it published.

Is it a memoir?

The working title is Questions in Raising Difficult Kids. I get lots of questions about raising difficult kids, and I say the same things over and over and over again. I wrote a book where each chapter starts off with a question a parent would ask me, then I write about the answers.

If I knew what next, I’d be doing it because there’s nothing that’s stopping me from evolving our model or stopping us from adding something to it. We’re always thinking about what’s next.

Who should I talk to next?

Sandy Hale. She’s a teacher at a private school in Manhattan.


Noah Davis is frequently lost.