Christmas has come early for Patrick McMillion.
The instructor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education is celebrating the October debut of a Certified Clinical Adventure Therapist (CCAT) credential now being offered by the Association for Experiential Education.
McMillion served as a catalyst for, and co-leader of, the committee charged with the development of those agreed-upon standards and competencies for adventure therapists.
“It was like Christmas Day when it was finally all done,” says McMillion, who also is clinical director of DeKalb-based Adventure Works, a non-profit, outdoor behavioral health care organization serving youth and providing individual, family and group counseling through adventure.
“We’ve been working on this seriously since 2014, and to see it actually happen – for the first time ever in the world – is really cool,” he adds. “Anyone who wants to become an adventure therapist, and wants to become certified, will do it using standards I helped to create.”
His participation was a result of his involvement in the leadership of the Therapeutic Adventure Professionals Group.
“There’s always been talk of creating a certification process,” McMillion says, “because most people who come into the field are either from the outdoor world already, and they become therapists, or they are therapists with an affinity for the outdoor world who end up doing outdoor activities with their clients.”
By 2017, McMillion and his partners submitted their proposal to the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), which agreed to move forward.
No one is certified yet, but 20 applications already have arrived from across the United States – and McMillion, as secretary of the AAE’s Certification Council, is among the reviewers.
He expects that number will continue to climb as practitioners want to demonstrate that “they’re working with the strongest fidelity to best practices” while still enjoying the freedom to remain flexible: “Adventure therapy people are creative,” he says, “and don’t want to be boxed in.”
Certification reflects a therapist’s ability to keep a safe practice while working with clients through adventure activities, he adds. “You’re not just sitting on a couch talking.”
For McMillion, this journey began far earlier than 2014.
“My dad took me camping for the first time when I was 3 years old,” says the DeKalb native, “so I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors and adventure-type experiences. I was in Boy Scouts my entire childhood, and eventually got the Eagle Scout rank.”
Beginning his college education downstate, he knew that he wanted to help others while still indulging his love of the wilderness.
Later, after earning his NIU master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, he was eager to implement an adventure therapy approach.
“When I combine my passion for adventure and the outdoors with my passion for counseling, I feel I’m the best version of my counselor self,” he says, “instead of just sitting in my office talking to my clients.”
Adventure therapy succeeds for a simple reason, McMillion says: “The biggest power of adventure therapy is its ability to engage.”
“Usually, clients have to go through several stages. The first is apathy: ‘Maybe I don’t need to do this,’ or, ‘Maybe I’m not aware of what changes need to happen,’ ” he says. “With adventure therapy, they feel immediately engaged and involved with the activity, which moves them immediately out of the first stage of apathy. They move through the process quicker.”
Such growth could take place on an archery range, he says.
Clients who focus on properly positioning and locking the arrow within the bow, pulling the string back, aiming and finally releasing the arrow then can consciously transfer that thought process to explore their mental health.
“You can talk about having a good stance, a good grip, a good follow-through when you’re letting go. The arrow gives you immediate feedback of your awareness, mindfulness and self-correction,” McMillion says.
“We then can reflect on all of those things and generalize it to the person’s everyday life: ‘How do you know what your goals are and what you’re aiming toward? How can you double-check yourself to be sure you’re remaining on that path?’ ”
McMillion, who is working toward his NIU Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, is eager to see how the new credential will spur and improve research in adventure therapy.
He’s also looking forward to telling students about the easier paths toward gaining the right experience for that practice, to playing an integral role in approving the credential for countless future applicants and to adding an editor’s credit from the certification manual to his own curriculum vitae.
But mostly, he says, “I’m excited to have an impact on the field that I love so much.”