Smith, Y., & Spitzmueller, M. C. (2016) Worker Perspectives on Contemporary Milieu Therapy: A Cross-Site Ethnographic Study. Social Work Research, 40(2), 105-116.
The term “milieu therapy” (MT) is commonly used in mental health literatures. However, because MT has historically encompassed a wide range of practices, it has invited the criticism that it is simply an attractive theoretical packaging of the time clients spend between other specified interventions, such as individual and group therapies. Some have suggested that, because of its conceptual ambiguity, MT should be abandoned altogether. Despite these challenges, MT endures as a common approach to social work practice in a range of clinical settings. This article describes a study that used ethnography to investigate the perspectives of workers from two mental health organizations that claim to provide MT. By analyzing four themes common to both sites, this article brings exploratory empirical findings to bear on the question of what constitutes MT in contemporary mental health organizations. Participants reported that (a) everything in the physical and social milieu has the potential to affect therapeutic change; (b) the milieu itself functions as a therapeutic agent; (c) the milieu provides a context for modeling and practicing desired behaviors; and (d) MT is a principle-based ethos, rather than a set of specific interventions. Implications of these findings for social work research, practice, and funding are discussed.