Wilderness therapy, defined as the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by mental health professionals, “that kinetically engage clients on cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels,” has come a long way. More than 100 Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare programs in the United States serve more than 10,000 clients and their families each year. Professional organizations in this field (affiliated with the umbrella organization, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council) are now committed to, accreditation, increasing access through third party payers, best practices, effective treatment, evidence based research and monitoring risk management.
Wilderness therapy does three things very well: assess the issues, help the young person develop coping strategies, and emerge with a more positive sense of self and hope for the future.
The first step in the “treatment process” should include a rigorous assessment of “the problems.” Families frequently acknowledge a lack of in-depth knowledge (beyond the obvious manifestations of anger, anxiety or depression) about what is going on beneath the surface with their son or daughter. At times, they are uncertain about the diagnoses offered by professionals. Medications may or may not have helped. They wonder whether spending two months in the woods can really address core issues and fear that sending their son or daughter away will only exacerbate already frayed relationships.
Although once a week therapy can be very helpful, adolescents are not always motivated to cooperate by offering relevant information. Many therapists agree that wilderness programs, comprised of several students, field staff, and mental health professionals, provide an environment conducive to self-disclosure. Students in each group are often of the same age and share similar issues.
In many cases, moreover, parents receive clinical information about their child, often for the first time, typically through weekly calls in which the therapist discusses observations, reports on progress and relays assignments for the upcoming weeks.
The Development of Coping Strategies:
When a young person attends a wilderness therapy program, he or she is observed by staff at all times. With in-the-moment therapy, professionals constantly assess how young people are managing their experiences—and intervening when appropriate. They talk through issues in real time and help the student develop strategies to self-soothe more productively—and move on when appropriate. Many young people learn to rely more and more on themselves as well as seek out appropriate help from peers and adults.
As several researchers have noted, wilderness therapy programs help build success-oriented identities for clients by increasing self-concept, hope, internal locus of control, self-confidence, and improved interpersonal relationships and social skills.
To be sure, wilderness programs have limitations. The groups tend to be pretty homogenous, lacking both socioeconomic and ethnic diversity. And, of course, not everyone “takes” to them, or is an appropriate candidate for one. And more often than not, wilderness therapy should be considered a component of a larger—and oftentimes—longer process.