Well-Being in the Wild
When most people envision a visit to a therapist’s office, they may picture a chaise lounge flanked by rows of books and framed diplomas. When counselor Sean Patrick ’09 digs deep with his clients, however, it’s often knee-high in a babbling stream or in the midst of a formidable mountain hike.
Patrick opened the clinical practice Evoke Changes in Kalispell, Montana, in 2017 with aspirations of improving mental health and wellness through outdoor adventure therapy trips. Although he continues to provide his services in a traditional setting as well, clients are increasingly seeking Patrick’s off-the-beaten-path brand of therapy.
“People can fake things in an office once a week. They can be whoever they want to be for 45 minutes or an hour,” Patrick says. “But when you’re on a trip with somebody, you can only hold it together for so long.” Patrick takes his clients out of their comfort zones. “And when that happens,” he explains, “confrontation is inevitable.”
He avows that confrontation is a necessary step to self-discovery. Patrick’s outdoor therapy excursions typically last between four to seven days because day trips and adventure weekends generally don’t give clients enough time to confront any trauma they may have and then process it through movement.
Patrick caters each excursion to the needs of the patients. He has taken teams on hunting and fishing trips in Montana’s mountains, valleys and clear lakes. He has helped a client work through his issues with alcoholism while saltwater fishing in Baffin Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast. He has even traveled with couples to Thailand for counseling accompanied by a kickboxing camp. Since opening his practice, he has also started a nonprofit providing outdoor therapy trips to veterans and first responders to help them develop the tools used to improve emotional coping skills, daily functioning abilities and overall quality of life.
At its heart, Evoke Changes seeks to help anyone who wants to improve their mental health and would benefit from doing so in a space larger than a therapist’s office.
“Having people sit in a room and sometimes talk about the most difficult things that ever came up in their lives—it can be a struggle,” Patrick admits. In the elements, he frequently pushes his counterparts to learn new skills such as starting a fire, cooking in the wild, or safely getting drinking water from a lake. “They recognize how strong they really are by doing that. To me, that’s the beauty of these trips.”
Throughout his life, Patrick has found solace and wellness in outdoor activities and the martial arts. Both helped him overcome personal struggles with depression and addiction that started well before he was a student at UTSA. He was diagnosed with a learning disability at a young age and visited several counselors throughout his adolescence. Patrick’s most gifted counselors inspired him to pursue a career in counseling, but he was quickly discouraged by his first foray into higher education. He dropped out of college and started working construction jobs to get by—all while falling into a pattern of alcohol and drug abuse.
At age 20, he hit rock bottom and made the decision to go back to school and give it his all. Even as he continued to work construction jobs, he went to school at night—first earning an associate’s degree at San Antonio College and then pursuing his bachelor’s in psychology at UTSA. “I spent a ridiculous amount of time at the library,” he claims, adding that he would leave work at 5 p.m., go to class until 9:30 p.m., and stay at the JPL “until they shut it down.”
Patrick says he became particularly fascinated with the biological underpinnings of psychology while taking a class about the sensation of perception at UTSA. “I really started to study the way the mind worked and the science of how the brain functions—and that helped me gain a great understanding of myself,” he explains. “It helped me understand what happens to my brain when I get anxious or when I start to become angry.”
Lessons from that class have aided him throughout his professional life—even the obscure ones. He recalls reading Phantoms in the Brain, a book about bizarre neurological disorders, as part of the assigned reading. Sure enough, he later encountered a patient experiencing one of those disorders: phantom limb pain.
“He was thinking he was crazy because he had this cramping, clenching feeling in a limb that no longer existed,” Patrick recalls. “Because of that experience I had at UTSA, I was able to help him.” Patrick read passages from the book along with him and they worked on techniques to help him relax.
After graduating from UTSA, he went on to earn his master’s degree in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and began working toward a Ph.D. in Vermont before coming across a job opening in Kalispell that encouraged an outdoor therapy model. Within weeks of applying, he moved to Montana to take the job. Having discovered a career that connected therapy with his lifelong passion for outdoor activity, he went on to open his own practice, where he continues to guide others navigating the very struggles he’s often faced. “I’ve been in different areas of despair in my life,” Patrick says. “I’ve pulled myself out of there, and now I find gratitude in something on a daily basis.”