Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) is a term coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. May and I sometimes find that when we recommend wilderness therapy as a first step in a series of interventions for an adolescent or young adult, the home therapist will strongly disagree with our recommendation! They will say things like: “this child is not ‘bad enough’ or ‘not acting out behaviorally enough’ to go to wilderness. We know immediately that this therapist has a view of wilderness therapy that is so opposite of what we have learned and know first-hand. This person thinks of “wilderness” as a negative, punishment type “boot camp” for kids who are acting out and are what we might call “externalizes” with an ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) diagnosis or a Conduct Disorder diagnosis. They think that all kids in wilderness are angry, defiant, substance abusing kids!
The old paradigm “wilderness therapy” has the connotation of being punitive. We find wilderness to be just the opposite today. The client typically develops a very close relationship with the therapist and field staff along with finding close connects with the other students in the group. Students, once removed from the “noises of everyday life”, are better able to explore within their group, the underlying issues that fuel their negative behaviors. Students learn the group cannot function without the cooperation of everyone, which encourages everyone to learn effective communication and problem solving skills. As the student accomplishes the difficult task of taking care of oneself in wilderness, their self-esteem and confidence grows. The wilderness programs we use do not use corporal punishment as a mechanism for change. Their model is a relationship model which often brings about healthy growth mentally, spiritually, and socially.
Wilderness is an opportunity to get back to the basic core of who we are without all of the interruptions of negative influences. Negative influences to us are any interruptions that damage the family value system. Some of these might be television, computers, drugs, peer group and/or gamming. Wilderness is a time of slowing down, reflecting, and taking stock. There are many types of wilderness programs too. Some offer different adventures, one we know of focuses on organic gardening, some do trauma work, some work with kids on the autism spectrum and others work with students experiencing trauma. Yes, some do work with kids with addiction issues. But absolutely NONE work to intimidate or create fear and compliance. All are places of reconnecting and finding a place of being “grounded” in nature. We wish therapists would give us a chance to explain how these newer, updated programs, with professional therapists work magic not only with the client but also with the families!
And, we love the level of assessment that can be done in the wilderness. As students start to engage in “letter therapy” with their parents, the start of the emotional work of the student and the family system starts to take place. As this process begins, the understanding and clarity as to exactly what will be needed in the next program or treatment becomes much clearer.