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What is Wilderness Therapy?


Before you read this article, make sure you read our article “Is Wilderness Therapy Right for My Teenager?”

The Origins of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy programs originate in the work of Kurt Hahn, a German educator who founded Outward Bound (OB) in the early 1940s as a way to teach British sailors how to survive the challenges of life on the open sea.

Hahn’s original schools and most wilderness therapy programs in operation today derive their pedagogical philosophy from Experiential Education.

The Association for Experiential Education defines Experiential Education as:

“… a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.”

Based on his experiences as the headmaster of boarding schools in Germany and England, Hahn integrated his work with Outward Bound into a comprehensive approach to education that used the application of real-world survival skills as a context to refine and develop the personal attributes of his students such as character, self-esteem, inner potential, leadership and a sense of social responsibility. Outward Bound and similar programs emerged in the United States in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s, mental health professionals adapted OB-influenced wilderness programs for a new purpose. Their goal: use wilderness programs as therapeutic experiences for adolescents with severe behavioral issues.

Wilderness Therapy: The Basics

When discussing wilderness therapy, it’s essential to understand that not all wilderness programs are therapy programs. There are hundreds of wilderness experience programs that exist solely for the personal development of the participant. These programs are completely different than wilderness therapy programs.

Also, it’s important to recognize that most Outward Bound-type programs are not, in fact, wilderness therapy programs. Most are wilderness experience programs.

Several features differentiate wilderness therapy programs from wilderness experience programs. First, real wilderness therapy programs are staffed by professionals trained to work with adolescents with behavioral issues. Second, all participants in wilderness therapy programs have either been recommended to them as a course of treatment by a psychiatrist or therapist or have been sent to them by the court system. Third, wilderness therapy programs follow a specific procedure, which includes evaluations and benchmarks to gauge the progress of their participants.

It’s also important to understand that wilderness therapy programs are only appropriate for certain types of teenagers living with certain types of disorders. The best person to make that call is a mental health professional.

Wilderness therapy is not a direct, one-to-one substitute for residential treatment (RTC), partial hospitalization programs (PHP), or intensive outpatient programs (IOP).

If a mental health professional recommends a wilderness therapy program, they do so because they feel that traditional treatment in a typical residential or outpatient facility may not be the best option. However, most teens in need of treatment for emotional, mood, or substance use disorders do better in a typical treatment setting. The problem with many wilderness therapy programs is that there’s too much wilderness and not enough therapy.

With that said, parents of teens living with behavioral issues or behavioral disorders should understand what wilderness therapy is, and why it may be appropriate in specific circumstances.

How Wilderness Therapy Works

Although different programs may call the following elements by slightly different names, all authentic wilderness therapy programs include these elements, in this order:

Cleansing Phase

During this phase, the participant lives in a new milieu, completely different from their home environment. If a negative peer group or turbulent home is associated with the behavioral issues, therapists use this time to create the psychological space needed to replace negative patterns of behavior with positive ones. During the cleansing phase, participants learn basic outdoor skills such as tent set-up, map reading, navigation, fire building, outdoor cooking, and how to choose a proper campsite.

Personal Responsibility Phase

During this phase, participants in wilderness therapy programs begin to develop personal responsibility through the natural consequences associated with living and working in a small group in the wilderness. Since most wilderness therapy programs include six to eight participants, two to three counselors, and involve cooperative group tasks such as backcountry navigation, mountaineering, camp set-up, and cooking, participants must work together in order to provide themselves with the basic necessities.

In a safe and supportive environment, counselors model positive ways to communicate, express emotions, and productively navigate challenging social situations. Since many participants in wilderness therapy programs resist authority, the primary teachers in this phase are the natural consequences of living in the wilderness.

When participants neglect to set up a tent and it rains, they get wet. If they set up a tent but choose not to pay attention to the lesson on proper campsite location, a flash rainstorm may wash out the campsite. If they resist learning to build a fire, they eat uncooked grains. Trained counselors teach the participants to make the connection between these choices and their consequences, and facilitate the transfer of these lessons back to real life.

Transition/Aftercare Phase

Toward the end of a wilderness therapy program, the participants go through a re-entry process. The goal of this phase is to make sure the lessons learned in the program transfer directly back to life at home. The specific nature of the transition phase depends on the reasons the individual participated in the program. If drugs or alcohol were an issue, then therapists teach strategies for saying no or preventing relapse. If aggression was the issue, then therapists work on strategies for handling anger. And if defiance and/or communication with parents and authority figures was the problem, then therapists brainstorm, plan, and roleplay positive communication strategies. The transition phase can include the program counselors, other program participants, and therapists who specialize in adolescent issues.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

In a study published in 2000, social researchers Todd Paxton and Leo Macavoy concluded that adolescents who participated in wilderness programs showed a “significant and enduring increase in self-efficacy.” In this context, self-efficacy is defined as “the ability to execute control over our own level of functioning and the events that affect our lives.” In effect, participants in wilderness programs learn better control over themselves. For adolescents facing severe behavioral challenges, improving self-management skills is critical. These are the skills they need to help them bring problematic behavior under control.

The natural consequences experienced while living in the wilderness drive home lessons of personal and social responsibility in unique ways. The research conducted by Paxton and Macavoy also indicates that in addition to self-efficacy, wilderness programs increase self-esteem, perseverance, and self-belief. After accomplishing and overcoming the challenges of living in the wilderness, participants often return with greater confidence in their personal capabilities, decision-making skills, and their ability to manage adversity.

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