Psych professor wins national award for contributions to group therapy

M any people are tempted to Google their own names. 

If H.L. Lee Gillis did that, he’d find more than 1.6 million hits directly connected to his work in psychology—a fitting legacy of his many years researching group psychotherapy and adventure therapy.

Dr. Lee Gillis, chair of psychology.
Dr. Lee Gillis, chair of psychology.
It’s no wonder, then, Dr. Gillis was nationally recognized by the Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy, Division 49 of the American Psychological Association (APA). He was recently presented with APA’s “2020 Arthur Teicher Group Psychologist of the Year Award” which honors important contributions to knowledge of group behavior.

“For me personally, it’s a matter of having adventure therapy recognized by a national organization. This is a big deal. I was honored just to be nominated,” Gillis said. 

“There’s an acknowledgment there that’s been really powerful,” he added. “On the Division 49 board, I’ve gotten to meet and work alongside people I respect. I had read their publications. Great scholars. Great academics. Making those connections through the years was an avenue to getting our work published in higher-tiered journals.”

Gillis has been a professor of psychology at Georgia College since 1986 and department chair for the past 15 years. His journey to “mindful group adventure therapy” began at age 10, when he started attending summer camp. Gillis worked as a camp counselor through the 1970s, guiding youth in small-group activities.

He got his first taste of psychology at Davidson College in North Carolina and became involved with a Wilderness Instructors course in Blairsville, Georgia. It introduced Gillis to enterprises like “trust falls” and 12-foot rappelling walls. During a summer course on abnormal psychology, he helped a psychiatrist conduct rock climbing with male adolescents. It was there, Gillis noticed a peculiar change. Patients, who wouldn’t ordinarily talk and answer questions, were suddenly opening up. 

Something happened when they started climbing. The conversations were different. I’ve essentially been chasing that my whole career.
– Dr. Lee Gillis
“Something happened when they started climbing. The conversations were different,” Gillis said. “I’ve essentially been chasing that my whole career. What was it? What made the difference? Was it the risk, the excitement, the fear? Being able to accomplish something they thought they couldn’t do?”

The rest, as they say, is history.

A research term paper led to interning at an environmental education center, which led to graduate school at Middle Tennessee State University and a PhD. in counseling psychology from the University of Georgia. Gillis has worked with Project Adventure in Covington, Georgia, and as a licensed psychologist at Coliseum Center for Families in Milledgeville.

Over the years, he’s won numerous honors, including Georgia College’s “Distinguished Professor Award” in 1993. Gillis co-authored three books, multiple textbook chapters and a copious number of publications. He’s given over a dozen keynote addresses and nearly 145 professional presentations. He helped make training videos, as well. All revolved around wilderness groups and adventure therapy. In fact, Gillis was among the first to write on this subject and co-authored “Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research and Practice.” He’s also been a board member, fellow and past president of APA’s Division 49.

Gillis has taught Georgia College courses on group dynamics, interpersonal relationships and personality theory, as well as senior seminars in adventure therapy and teamwork. 

Youth at Shunda Creek. (Courtesy of Will Black)
Youth at Shunda Creek. (Courtesy of Will Black)
A couple dozen students have worked in Gillis’ adventure therapy lab—about seven per semester. They analyze data from the Canadian organization, Enviros, and its “Shunda Creek” program in Alberta, Canada. The 12-week program treats young men with substance abuse disorder. Students use data from biweekly questionnaires to determine how wilderness-based activities lead to improved self-worth and recovery. Treatment groups go camping, canoeing, hiking, biking and rock climbing—but Gillis said what makes the therapy powerful is “intentionally connecting” each activity directly to issues young adults are experiencing.

At Georgia College, his students are treated to similar small-group techniques and learn by experience. Instead of lectures, they read and discuss psychology articles, problem solve and give presentations. Sometimes, visitors see Gillis’ students walking around the Arts and Science building. Each group member pulls the ends of a bandana so tautly, a cup of water on top doesn’t spill. These types of activities connect people and show the importance of working together.

That’s what I’m working toward with my students too. They’re problem-solving. It’s learning, instead of lecturing. This develops trust and makes it psychologically safe for students to be themselves and share with each other.
– Gillis
Google’s done a study that identified psychological safety as the most important factor in group productivity. Reflecting on what happened during activity completes the lesson, because issues “literally play out” during movement. Whether it’s a problem with depression, communication, cooperation or personal relations—outdoor and group adventures help identify pathways for resolution. 

“That’s what I’m working toward with my students too. They’re problem-solving,” Gillis said. “It’s learning, instead of lecturing. This develops trust and makes it psychologically safe for students to be themselves and share with each other.”

When students work in the lab, Gillis said their schoolwork “becomes real.” They examine data and apply what they’ve learned in statistics and psychology classes. Many go on to be therapists, social workers, counselors and psychologists.

Dr. Gillis (left) and recent graduate Garrett Cook (right) at the Southeastern Psychological Association conference in 2019.
Dr. Gillis (left) and recent graduate Garrett Cook (right) at the Southeastern Psychological Association conference in 2019.

I felt like the adventure therapy lab would be a good fit, and I can say now that I was right.
– Garrett Cook
Garrett Cook was one of Gillis’ lab assistants. He graduated in May with a degree in psychology and now works as a research analyst for Georgia College’s Early Language and Literacy program. He starts graduate school next fall. 

“Initially, I was trying to get my foot in the door with research and get more involved with my studies,” Cook said. “I grew up backpacking, hiking and camping with my dad. The idea of using those types of activities to help young adults work through their drug addiction was extremely interesting to me. I felt like the adventure therapy lab would be a good fit, and I can say now that I was right.”

Lab students deal mostly with secondary data on Excel spreadsheets. This helps them acquire important skills employers seek in the workplace. They learn how to analyze numbers, review literature, manage large sets of data and report findings in an understandable way.

It was enjoyable work for Cook and a refreshing change from regular schoolwork. His time at Georgia College and in the adventure therapy lab helped him develop critical-thinking skills and “a healthy level of skepticism,” which he uses every day at work to make decisions.

Recently, Cook was the lead author on a peer-reviewed article about adventure therapy, published in the “Journal for Therapeutic Schools and Programs.” Its major conclusion showed age had no bearing in the effectiveness of adventure therapy. However, post-treatment findings identified the need for additional support following discharge, because clients who tried alcohol at younger ages experienced more-severe relapses six months later.

It’s nice to be in a setting where the work you’re doing feels purposeful and your ideas are taken seriously. Sure, the work we do in lab is academic, but it has real-world implications. You know you’re working for something more than just a grade.
– Cook

“You know you’re doing something that could potentially advance the field’s knowledge in that area,” Cook added. “When everyone in lab feeds off each other’s ideas, there’s an energy and a pace that’s uncommon in normal classroom settings. It’s exciting stuff.”

Cook is just one of hundreds of students Gillis has worked with at Georgia College. He helps them find their passion through his.

You could say it’s been an adventure.