Therapeutic Wilderness Programs

If you’re new to the adolescent therapeutic world, you know that the number and variety of treatment options for young people is dizzying. One category that is often misunderstood or confused with other treatment categories is wilderness therapy. This article provides a brief overview of the nature and function of quality wilderness therapy programs for parents considering that option for their teen.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Classic wilderness therapy is a short-term residential style of treatment that leverages certain features of the wilderness to accelerate the treatment process. Typical wilderness programs utilize a brick and mortar base camp for initial intake, preparation and family therapy, and then take clients “on course,” meaning into the back country for an extended therapeutic backpacking experience. The wilderness context is so different from most teens’ normal day to day environment that it creates a sense of disorientation. This mild disorientation can be highly therapeutic because it creates a temporarily heightened state of vulnerability and openness. Young people become more dependent on others in an unfamiliar environment, especially when many of their normal coping tools—television, computers, peer groups, i-phones, etc.—are absent. This creates a window of vulnerability that allows field staff and wilderness therapists to engage the teen in therapeutic process very quickly.

Other therapeutic features of a wilderness setting include the intrinsic serenity, beauty, simplicity (lack of technology) of nature. Since everything from meal preparation to setting up camp requires everyone’s participation, the wilderness setting also fosters interdependence, positive peer relations and teamwork. Another therapeutic advantage of a wilderness milieu is that it provides a controlled environment free of extraneous distractions; this is useful for assessment and diagnosis.

What isn’t Wilderness Therapy?

Many parents initially confuse wilderness programs with other types programs such as boot camps or extreme survival-based programs. Boot camps tend to be punitive in nature and include an intense behavioral approach to treatment—an approach that does not work with many, if not most, diagnostic profiles. Even when this approach does work in the controlled setting of a behaviorally-based program, results are difficult to sustain once the young person leaves that setting. Survival oriented programs are more focused on extreme experience and hard skill building than wilderness treatment programs. This approach can be effective with certain populations—such as adult substance abusers—when coupled with quality therapy and strong safety protocols, but may not be suitable for adolescents, trauma victims or other soft or fragile diagnostic profiles.

Wilderness programs, by contrast, are treatment focused, staffed by qualified wilderness staff and therapists and non-punitive. A good wilderness program strikes a balance between the intensity of the wilderness setting and a nurturing, team-oriented, safety-first approach.

Wilderness Programs and the Continuum of Care

Typically, wilderness therapy is either the first or second step in a continuum of residential therapeutic care. Young people in deep crisis may first need to be hospitalized for stabilization or detoxification prior to enrolling in a wilderness program. Others go directly from home, either voluntarily or with the help of a youth transportation service. The second step in the continuum is typically a long-term residential treatment program, preferably one that involves the entire family in a systemic treatment process. Finally, a transition or aftercare program may be engaged to ensure that changes made in treatment survive the transition back into the family system and the real world. Some young people then benefit from a routine of regular, supportive outpatient services such as psychotherapy, mentoring or twelve-step groups.