History and Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy programs can be powerful, effective, life-changing experiences for some teens. They’re derived from the pioneering work of Kurt Hahn, a German educator who founded Outward Bound (OB) in the early 1940s as a way to teach British sailors to survive the challenges of the open sea. The educational philosophy around which both Hahn’s original schools and the many wilderness therapy institutes in operation around the world are built is known as Experiential Education – which essentially means learn by doing.

Verify Insurance & Schedule Tour

Live in a Healthy Atmosphere

Wilderness Therapy programs are a great choice for teens who need to get away from electronic gadgets, social media, and a negative peer group, but they may not be appropriate for teens struggling with serious addiction or mental health disorders. If a teenager’s life has become unmanageable due to problems like these, it’s likely they’ll derive more benefit from a period of intensive residential treatment, individual therapy, and issue-specific supports than a month or two in the wilderness.

Outward Bound-derived programs use the application of real-world survival skills as a context to refine and develop personal attributes such as character, self-esteem, leadership, and a sense of social responsibility. They’ve evolved from having no trained therapeutic staff on hand to being supervised by trained mental health professionals, and some field staff have experience – and perhaps even professional training – with teenagers with behavior issues. For these teenagers, Wilderness Therapy programs can teach self-management skills, increase self-efficacy, and instill qualities like perseverance and determination that will serve them throughout their lives.

However, for teenagers facing mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, trauma, or substance use disorders, Wilderness Therapy programs have a problem: too much wilderness, and not enough therapy.

The Importance of Intensive, Consistent Therapy

The lion’s share of lessons in Wilderness Therapy programs come from the natural consequences of living away from the modern world: if participants choose not 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 their campsite. If they resist learning to build a fire, they eat uncooked grains. 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. If there are therapists involved, teenagers meet with them a few hours a week, at most.

For teenagers with significant mental health issues, a few hours a week is not enough – and Wilderness Therapy is probably not what they need.

Verify Insurance & Schedule Tour

What they need is real time spent every day real therapists getting to the root of their real issues. Evidence says that’s the most effective way to make progress, root out old patterns, and replace them with new ones. That’s the most effective way to recover from substance abuse and learn to manage the symptoms of mood disorders: treatment programs centered around professional therapy, and plenty of it.

It’s not that Wilderness Therapy is not real, or that the therapists involved are not highly trained professionals. It’s that the amount of therapy teenagers receive during these programs is – in most cases – simply inadequate, and does not meet the immediate needs of teenagers with significant mental health disorders.

Residential Treatment at Evolve

Evolve Treatment Centers offer Residential Treatment Programs where teenagers receive 3-4 hours of individualized therapy per day within a fully structured 12-hour day of therapeutic activities designed to address the both the primary and co-occurring mental health challenges disrupting their lives. After a stay in a Residential Treatment at Evolve, during which they receive the therapy they need to get their lives back on track, a teenager may thrive in a Wilderness Therapy program, and learn valuable life lessons.

Before that time, though, parents should consider what their children need more: lessons on teamwork, building fires, navigating with map and compass, or a custom designed course of therapy crafted to untangle the issues behind their struggles.

If you’re a parent weighing these issues, please call us at Evolve. Our admissions specialists will talk with you about your teenager, and help you decide on the most appropriate and beneficial path for your teenager.

Verify Insurance & Schedule Tour

Join Our Family Today

We believe in the family dynamic, so all of our Evolve Treatment Centers feature beautiful and comfortable home-like settings. Each location is safe and the environments are supportive, conveying a sense of warmth and security, trust and kindness.

We provide a healthy, rigorous atmosphere in which sensitive issues can be explored. Our picturesque and peaceful settings reinforce our mission to lead clients on a path of healing, growth, and lifelong recovery.