There are several compelling reasons for choosing a wilderness program as a starting point for your teen (or young adult’s) journey in therapeutic programming. For some, a therapeutic experience in the out-of-doors offers the understanding a youngster needs to get back on track at home. For others, it prepares your teen for the next step in programming. Wilderness therapy provides powerful elements of consequence, containment and motivation that give your son or daughter the tools for introspection during and after the experience. The wilderness is unrelenting and comprehensive so students must proactively respond to this fresh, challenging environment. They learn that they must consciously make choices — knowing that they are completely responsible for the outcomes.
Many young people do not respond to traditional talk therapy. Outdoor programs offer an active way for staff and students to relate to one another, so the emphasis is not solely on talk. In some programs, students are “in the field” for the entire experience and the therapy staff joins them, typically twice each week, wherever the group is camping. In a “base camp” model, students trek for several days at a time but return to a base for a variety of activities – including weekly therapy sessions.
Outdoor programs place youth in unique settings where they are often quite unsure of themselves. Moving out of their familiar environment serves to reduce defensiveness and encourages changes in relationships with adult leaders. Many programs incorporate an element of perceived risk, thereby encouraging participants to move beyond their comfort zones and face their issues and fears. Most outdoor programs use a small-group format and encourage interdependence among group members. The 24/7 or ‘round the clock group experience is a very powerful teaching tool.
The interplay of therapy, group dynamics and the restorative power of nature creates major shifts in students’ outlook, perceptions and conduct. Removed from the distractions and temptations of home life, they are better able to explore the issues underlying negative behaviors. Because the group cannot function without everyone’s cooperation, students learn new pro-social behaviors like effective communication and problem-solving skills. Hiking to the summit of a trail in the dead of winter or getting a campfire going during a rainstorm helps develop self-esteem on an individual level and also offers students the opportunity to mentor other students – reinforcing their sense of accomplishment.
The relationship that develops between the students, the highly trained outdoor experts and the clinically savvy therapists can often uncover underlying issues and concerns not previously seen or understood at home. The great out-of-doors is a great place for assessment and sophisticated psychological and educational testing is available in most programs.
Unlike pure adventure programs like Outward Bound and NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School) — both excellent programs but not treatment oriented — therapeutic wilderness programs have an intense clinical focus. Every encounter, assignment, activity and experience a student has in the field has intention behind it. Intentionality gives students purpose for what they are doing and offers continual opportunities for growth. As students better understand the choices they have made in the past and the ensuing consequences, they begin to see how making better choices can change their future.
Wilderness therapy programs should not be confused with boot camp. Using a militaristic approach, boot camps seek compliance through behavior modification techniques often combined with physical punishment. Wilderness therapy seeks to develop compliance through an experiential learning process of success and failure within the community and the environment. Students learn from experience rather than fear and intimidation.
Combining natural and logical structure, traditional therapy, a value-based curriculum and the power of Mother Nature, wilderness programs offer students a wonderful opportunity to return home for a fresh start or, for many, to make the transition from home to residential treatment or to a therapeutic school. Many longer-term programs prefer to enroll students who have completed a wilderness program prior to coming to their program — feeling this jump-start helps students get farther faster.
So…why wilderness? The experience is an invaluable tool for helping teens better understand themselves and for crafting an on-going treatment plan – whether the next steps will be taken at home or at a longer-term therapeutic school or program.