When he was younger, Ryan Heath enjoyed his schoolwork and planned to pursue medicine and biomedical research—but he also felt drawn to the challenge of experiential, non-academic fields. “Working in commercial fishing with my father, my technical/vocational classes, and spending time in the outdoors might have filled a little bit of a gap I didn’t know was seeking,” he says.
When he started college, Heath began to feel that gap’s presence keenly. Feeling isolated in his large, theoretical introductory courses and hungry for active community engagement, Health entered an experiential learning program called Brown Outdoor Leadership Training (BOLT)—and his life changed as a result: “I found myself working to build a set of interpersonal and group facilitation strengths I had never even conceived of,” he says.
Now, as a Schweitzer Fellow and a student at The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, Health is working to bring the benefits of experiential learning to at-risk Chicago youth. He partnered with an innovative organization called Chicago Adventure Therapy, and has spent the last several months working to integrate a service-learning component into their existing therapeutic programming.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
The positive impact of BOLT rippled out to all other areas of my life. I became enthralled by the idea that something about experiential education could affect mental health, possibly when other methods had not, and became so impassioned that I shifted my academic path towards exploring how I could utilize experiential education for others’ well-being.
I began working with adolescents in several experiential programs (including the Brown Leadership Institute, Project Adventure, and the Teen Outreach Program). I soon saw this programming impact not only the youths’ mental health (they were often struggling in school, dealing with socioeconomic structures that oppressed them and their families, and anxious/depressed), but also their risk behaviors (such as substance use and risky sexual activity). Engaging these youths in something active and meaningful was a way to build their reflective and social-emotional skills in a way that affected how they dealt with all of these factors.
These youths face all of these challenges, all at once. Health is not a single discipline. Health is broad, and responses to community needs should reflect that.
After several years, I realized that to have a larger impact, I needed a graduate education, and the field of experiential education itself needed promotion and legitimization to truly impact underprivileged populations and health disparities. That, in turn, brought me to Chicago. When I next began to look for a way to continue and expand my previous work, I found the Schweitzer Fellows program. My project, “Adventures in Service,” aimed to integrate service-learning into the adventure therapy model of the organization Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT).
Adventure therapy and service-learning are two experiential techniques implemented as therapeutic and prevention strategies, respectively. The first experiential strategy (adventure therapy, which uses physically adventurous activities as a therapeutic medium) has been applied to variety of mental health challenges. Service-learning utilizes community service and reflection as a way to build youth skills and knowledge, and has been implemented to reduce high school dropout, teenage pregnancy, substance use, and other risk behaviors.
I had used both techniques separately in my previous work, and I thought that a combination of a therapeutic technique (adventure therapy) with a prevention strategy (service-learning) could both reduce immediate adolescent disparities in mental health, and improve other long-term social and behavioral health outcomes. I believe this unique, combined approach tackles both immediate and ongoing health disparities, in the spirit of Albert Schweitzer.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
The organization I partnered with, CAT, is a non-profit agency that helps youth develop social-emotional skills using adventure activities and environmental exploration as therapeutic interventions. CAT uniquely recognizes the social injustice of the limited access of underserved and urban populations to natural environments and adventure programs, and is one of the only organizations nationally to use this model in an urban setting. The adventure activities used include kayaking, rock-climbing, biking, and navigation programs—all done within an urban area. This therapeutic portion is targeted to the mental health challenges underserved youths disproportionately face.
The physical activity, out-of-school involvement, and increased access to nature all have health benefits in and of themselves. But incorporating a service-learning component has expanded the experiential therapeutic progression from therapy to prevention—expanding participants’ self-awareness into group and community awareness, and then into contribution. We hope the addition of service-learning has further benefited the youths by building up protective factors including resiliency, self-efficacy, social-emotional skills, and community engagement (all skills that they can continue to develop and apply in other settings).
We have thus far have used this combined model with a group of at-risk young women and a group of gang-involved young men. We are hoping to also use the integrated model with a group of LGBTQ homeless youth and/or a group of young women in foster care.
Depending on the population, the integrated model has taken few different forms. For the at-risk young women, we worked with them 1-2 times per week for 4-6 total hours per week over 9 weeks. Over the course of those 9 weeks, they spent time building group and social-emotional skills through adventure activities, as well as planning the service project. They identified teenage pregnancy as the community issue most relevant to them, designed a service project in response, and implemented it in their final week.
With the gang-involved young men, we had shorter sessions and a more fluid population. We thus had almost two months of adventure activities once per week, culminating in a service project that allowed them to apply skills from the adventure sessions and reflect on the challenges of service.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Poverty. At a certain point when working with youth, I really began to conceptualize health and risk as multi-faceted and integrated, and I believe it’s impossible to separate mental health from behavioral health from physical health. As a result, I think interventions need to target health holistically, and from a perspective of what is actually going to work for the populations we are most concerned about.
Likewise, any aspect of health cannot be separated from poverty. Poverty will increase the likelihood of any kind of physical, behavioral, or mental health risks, as well as socioeconomic factors like community violence, access to education, employment, and incarceration. We need to address current health conditions and disparities with holistic interventions, and that is integral, invaluable work.
If we are to ever really eliminate health disparities, we need to address not only the symptoms but the cause. We need to re-examine the structure that has created current disparities, that encourages and perpetuates inequality, and truthfully look at our own individual, daily roles in allowing that system to exist. Then, I hope, a change will right social injustice, and in doing so, address the most pressing health issue: poverty.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
One of the most exciting aspects of working with youth is that they never fail to surprise me—with their wisdom, their humor, their challenges, and their reflections. Of course I or anyone can write words and paragraphs, wax eloquent and ramble, rant, or preach about social inequality, health disparities, risk, or any number of abstract concepts. I very much have done so here. At the end, though, these are people. There are young men and women here in Chicago and across the country and internationally who embody and live these abstractions of development and socioeconomics, and some are arbitrarily handed a higher burden.
And yet, they are still youth. We can all fall in the trap of the language of “other,” but at a core level there is not any inherent difference between us. I continue to be most surprised by the resiliency of young people who, despite the oppression, hardship, and disparity they face, remind me of a common humanity, and who are still young people.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?
For me, being a Schweitzer Fellow represents a commitment to service and social equality. It denotes a dedication to recognizing that which is oppressive and unjust, and to working towards what is empowering and right. It represents listening to and understanding others, grappling with difference and privilege, and collaboratively working towards common goals. It means aspiring daily to Schweitzer’s ideals of service.
Ryan Health is a Schweitzer Fellow in Chicago. Click here to read more about the Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Heath it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Chicago Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Heath’s efforts to improve the mental health and social-emotional skills of at-risk Chicago youth, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.