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Friday, February 27, 2015

Mountain Valley Treatment Center in NH - An Important Resource for Adolescents with Significant Anxiety Disorders


February 24, 2015

"Severe Anxiety is like a weed. It grows fast, damages the garden, and if not removed at the stem, has a tendency to return."

On alternate Tuesday mornings throughout the school year, we host educational seminars for our clinical staff, because it's essential that they stay abreast not only of the latest developments in the field, but also of the resources to which they can confidently refer clients. This week, we heard a compelling presentation by Dan Villiers, Ph.D., founder and admissions director of Mountain Valley Treatment Center (MVTC) in Haverhill, New Hampshire.

Situated on a beautiful, 1800-acre "campus" bordering the White Mountain National Forest, MVTC is a unique non-profit, short-term residential treatment center for adolescent boys and girls struggling with anxiety disorders. Which we know from painful experience to be proliferating! In a supportive and nurturing milieu, Mountain Valley provides well-researched, evidence-based therapies to students aged 13 - 20 whose lengths-of-stay average 75 days. You can learn much more on MVTC's website.

We thought you might be interested in this poignant "Open Letter" from Dan Villiers, in which he describes his own struggles with crippling anxiety as a teen, and his motivations for establishing MVTC:

Origins & Motivations 

Some people have asked me about the motivations behind Mountain Valley. I do tell them about the data: from the almost 10 million children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in the United States (NIMH, 2012); to the 700% increase over the last forty years (Gray, P., 2010); to the treatability statistics of CBT and anxiety disorders that would make even the biggest skeptic give you a high five.

I do tell them about the benefits of exposure therapy, how the victim of the fight and flight response can heal more rapidly in an environment where there is no one to fight, and nowhere to flee. I do tell them about the concerning shortage of anxiety disorder treatment programs, and how this is an epidemic, so I think we should be doing more.

I don’t tell them about how my life as a teenager was circumscribed by anxiety, and the decisions it made for me. I don’t tell them about the America I lost at 17 years old because “tough it out” was not the panacea I needed. I don’t tell them about the Mountain I climbed to overcome panic, and the Valley of recovery I was fortunate to find; a valley where I became more the arbiter of real threat and less the victim of perceived danger.

While my own experience inspired the design of Mountain Valley, my frustrations as a clinician treating anxiety provided equal motivation.

I was frustrated that however “in the zone” I was, the benefits of the 50-minute hour wore off on my clients almost as fast as the euphoria I feel after hot yoga. I was frustrated by parent’s who saw medication as the first line of attack, and rarely as an adjunct to therapy, or the “if all else fails” scenario.

I was frustrated by how my client’s fear, and their fear of fear, made “no-shows” as frequent as I remember it raining in London. I was frustrated by my attempts of social anxiety skills groups and panic attack support groups, where 6 were scheduled to attend, and only one showed. There is nothing like five empty chairs, and decaffeinated herbal tea, to make a 17-year-old feel like he is the only one.

I know that you probably know that movement and change is tough without the normalization and empathy from a student’s peers; the power of, “I know exactly what you mean,” and, what I heard a student say on her graduation from Mountain Valley last week, “guys, if I did it, I promise, you can too.”

Anxiety was once a mechanism to solely prepare and protect us from harm, but it seems to have evolved into something annoyingly unnecessary at best and pervasively destructive at worst. While the complex story of the origin of anxiety disorders needs to be told, it is important for our anxious teenagers to know that the experience of it is just an experience; a series of symptoms, and a symptom itself.

Mountain Valley helps our students to understand that they are not defined by their anxious temperament, or the anxiety they experience, but more by their response to it. Denial, apathy and avoidance are responses and strategies that provide some immediate relief, but overtime, become equally as damaging as the anxiety itself.

Severe Anxiety is like a weed. It grows fast, damages the garden, and if not removed at the stem, has a tendency to return. Symptom reduction is merely the beginning of the Mountain Valley journey. It is the origin that provides the motivation for our teenagers to address anxiety at its root; from enmeshed relationships with a parent, to years of teasing and bullying, to sibling rivalry. I know you see this all the time.

This is not to downplay the influence of “genetic vulnerability” and “biological predisposition” in the origins of anxiety; merely, let’s focus more on what we can change, and less on what we can’t. In our daily challenges working with students in need, I think they need to know that just as much as we do.

Daniel P. Villiers, Ph.D.

Mountain Valley Treatment Center is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and contributions to it are fully tax-deductible.

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