By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
A psychologist with roots in Hoke County recently earned recognition from the American Psychological Association (APA) for his work with an adventurous type of group therapy.
The Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy, Division 49 of the American Psychological Association (APA) recently presented Dr. H. Lee Gillis with the APA’s 2020 Arthur Teicher Group Psychologist of the Year Award. The award honors important contributions to knowledge of group behavior.
Gillis grew up in Hoke County, where he spent summers attending Camp Monroe and delivering papers for The News-Journal. His father was an amateur photographer, and he enjoyed learning to develop film in a darkroom. He did photography for the Ekoh yearbook, and took part in band and other creative endeavors at Hoke County High School.
Gillis particularly recalls his time at nearby Camp Monroe as a formative experience: both his years attending as a camper, and his later summers as a young adult working as a camp counselor.
“It was a big part of who I am and Camp Monroe was a big part of my soul,” he said.
Those experiences would in part inspire his study of psychology, and his work with a type of therapy known as “adventure therapy.”
After graduating from Hoke High with the Class of 1973, Gillis went on to study psychology in college.
“I remember clearly my first class in psychology. I didn’t really know the field existed. It just really appealed to me, trying to understand people,” he said.
Group dynamics and group behavior were especially interesting to him.
“It just appealed to me. I got really curious about ways to work with people better,” he said
Gillis got serious about his studies, and went on to earn degrees in psychology from Davidson College and Middle Tennessee State University, and earned his Ph.D in counseling psychology from the University of Georgia. He has worked with the Coliseum Center for Families, and Project Adventure.
Today he works as a psychologist and a professor at Georgia College, where he teaches the next generation of psychologists, therapists and researchers. Gillis also collaborates with colleagues across the country, and around the world in building the body of work of what’s known as “adventure therapy.”
Gillis became interested in adventure therapy while he was working with a center that took a group of young clients out rock climbing as part of a therapeutic treatment. Clients who usually wouldn’t talk, suddenly were talking. It fascinated him.
“Something happened when they started rock climbing, and I’ve been chasing that something my whole career,” he said.
Adventure therapy takes a mindfulness approach to using outdoor activities as a way to help people work on their therapy goals. The coordinators look at a client’s needs to help develop the activities.
“What does a client need, what’s a client working on, and can we co-create some activities that are challenging…where they can kind of work on the things they’re working on in their talk therapy, but they can do that while they’re climbing or paddling,” Gillis said.
Whether it’s rock climbing, crossing a cold river, kayaking or some other outdoor activity, adventure therapy has a lot more to offer than just a fun experience. Being mindful has a lot to do with acting with intention and reflecting on your actions afterwards, as well as checking in with other members of the group.
“It’s not sitting around in a group and talking. It’s a matter of doing something, having the action, and then talking about what just happened,” Gillis said.
It’s “really powerful” that groups can share an experience together, and then talk about what they experienced in the moment, he explained.
Over the decades of his career, Gillis has worked with adjudicated children, kids with drug problems and juvenile sex offenders living in residential groups. He’s seen the difference that adventure therapy approaches can make in their lives.
The award from the APA is validating for adventure therapy, and helps recognize it as a legitimate approach to psychotherapy, Gillis said.
“That’s been a big deal,” he said.
Gillis was among the first to write professionally about adventure therapy. He has won many honors for his work over the years, including being named Georgia College’s “Distinguished Professor” in 1993. He is a prolific author of books, textbook chapters and professional publications. He’s also a noted speaker who has given keynote addresses and many professional presentations about adventure therapy. Gillis is currently working on a scholarly article for the Group Dynamics Journal, further expanding on the field.
Gillis also teaches classes in teamwork, and helps young would-be psychologists prepare for their future careers.
“In my careers class we really explore the wide breadth of all the things you can do with a psychology degree,” he said.
Gillis said he draws inspiration from a well-known Hoke County educator and leader, the late Raz Autry, who was the Hoke High principal when Gillis was growing up – and who helped oversee the racial integration of Hoke’s public schools.
“I use him as an example with my classes, how do you bring disparate groups together,” Gillis said.
Gillis and his wife, who met through their shared love of outdoor experiences, live on Lake Sinclair in Georgia.