What Is Wilderness Therapy?

Therapeutic Wilderness Programs differ from traditional wilderness programs in that they emphasize group therapy and a therapeutic process facilitated by counselors in the field. The basic premise behind these programs is that the wilderness presents an environment that cannot be manipulated by teenagers who have been rebellious and defiant, and who break all the rules. Through the use of positive peer pressure, introspective group discussions, and the building of primitive skills, adolescents begin to understand through metaphor the skills and behaviors that are necessary to lead productive lives in society.

Therapeutic wilderness programs are sometimes referred to as Outdoor Education or Therapy. Students quickly learn how cooperation, responsibility for behaviors, and a strong work ethic can create a positive group environment where they can develop self-esteem and obtain greater self-knowledge. By removing the child from the home environment and all the influences of modern culture, such as parties, television, videos, and movies, the teen can explore his or her motives, behaviors, and attitudes that have been self-defeating. Teenagers with behavioral and emotional problems begin to explore their relationships with others and their issues with authority, peers, and family members. Positive peer pressure replaces negative peer pressure. The group encourages defiant individual teens to participate in the necessary activities for an outdoor wilderness experience.

Many wilderness programs have a structured system of levels that operate as metaphors for life in the real world. These metaphors relate to time-honored systems of initiation for young people. A child might progress from coyote to eagle level, for example. In our modern society, such rites of initiation have all but disappeared; or worse, they have been replaced by dangerous, self-imposed initiations such as drug and alcohol experimentation, sexual promiscuity, and dangerous thrill-seeking activities.

Many troubled adolescents make significant progress during a relatively short time span in wilderness programs. The cost of these short-term programs is relatively low when compared with longer term residential therapeutic facilities or boarding schools. The average program lasts four to eight weeks. Teens with significant behavioral, emotional, and academic problems sometimes then attend therapeutic boarding schools where they can catch up on school credits and remain in a structured, safe environment.

Wilderness programs differ dramatically from boot camps in that the primary facilitator of change is the wilderness itself. Nature serves as the ultimate teacher, unable to be manipulated or conned by a defiant, angry adolescent. Such an environment by necessity requires certain behaviors and actions. Teens quickly learn how cooperating with their peers results in a significantly more positive experience than when they refuse to participate in certain activities, such as fire-building, food preparation, and camp set-up. Although there is strong leadership in such programs, there is no “drill sergeant” demanding children participate in pointless activities. All activities relate to living in the wilderness and making the experience as safe and rewarding as possible. While boot camps tend to be more punitive and jail-like in nature, the wilderness therapy program is liberating and fulfilling as the child learns he or she has the ability to learn new skills and cooperate within a group.

Safety is the primary concern in any quality wilderness program. Because nature is itself sufficient teacher, there is no need to allow any situation to progress to a degree that might put participants at risk for injury or illness. By keeping risk at a minimum, top-notch wilderness programs create a physical environment where dramatic changes can take place while keeping the participant as safe, if not safer, than they would be in their home and school environment. A quality wilderness program will have a support “base camp” that keeps in 24-hour touch with field personnel. Radio contact is made on a regular basis. An Emergency Response Team is ready to respond at a moment’s notice should any child become ill or injured. However, the rates of injury in qualified wilderness programs are extremely low. Studies of such programs have shown a child is at much greater risk of injury driving in a car in his or her hometown or participating in traditional hiking trips or school sports such as football.

By providing a safe yet dramatic environment within which to effect positive behavioral changes, the wilderness experience accelerates the therapeutic process and gives students a powerful foundation on which to build a more positive, productive life.

Further research published by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative can be found at OBHIC.COM