What is Therapeutic Wilderness?

I have parents ask what is wilderness, and why does it work better than sending my child to therapy?  These are basic questions to answer on some level, although the underlying factors and facts are not so easily answered.  So bear with me as I lead you down a path to understanding.

Let me begin by saying that there are many talented and hard working therapists out there. Their job with adolescents is not easy.  They must compete with many other distractions on an infrequent basis to provide not only an outlet for the child to complain about their environment but to build an individual tool kit to help that child survive and thrive amidst those distractions.  For some individuals, let alone for some children, the therapist becomes the first and best line of defense.

Most of the families we see have tried this route.  They may have already seen a few therapists–one for the child, one for the family, one in school and one outside school, even one for each parent–and perhaps it worked for a while.  But another stumbling block might have emerged, and they found themselves back at the beginning.  Or perhaps they tried to find a good therapist but could not find one that worked for them.  After all, one must like working with one’s therapist and find the relationship rewarding on some level.  But that level is subjective.  That is the human nature of psychology.  While there are never guarantees, we do what we can to effect change.  And that may be why, for some people, outpatient therapy is not enough.

Wilderness programs have been around for many years now, with recent research bearing up that this is, for some students, a reasonable therapeutic alternative with positive outcomes  (https://obhcouncil.com/research/does-wilderness-treatment-work/).  [As a note, I am not including boot camps in this discussion as I consider them to be highly punitive and therefore not therapeutic.]  Anasazi began as an experiment some 50 years ago through a university program to help turn around the lives of young people by removing them from their current difficulties and rerouting their thinking.  Formally launched as a nonprofit in Arizona in 1988 by Larry Olsen and Ezekiel Sanchez, Anasazi still runs a traditional wilderness model in which students live in the desert for 8 weeks.  Food and shelter are provided (and field staff carry satellite phones for emergencies), but cell phones, television sets, and iPods are not.  Since then, many other wilderness programs have come along (and some have gone).  There is a wide range of programs now, including high adventure models with intensive exercise, base camp models in which students sleep in dormitory style cabins and venture out on two or three days hikes, campuses with dormitory type accommodations in which students only go out during the day, to those with farm-like settings.  The basic premise that separates wilderness from other therapeutic settings (such as boarding schools) is the intense experiential work and the short length of stay (typically 6 to 10 weeks).

Many children and adolescents who are placed in wilderness are angry, defiant, scared, depressed, anxious, oppositional, shut down, engaging in risky or harmful behavior, and/or in general are not doing well at home and/or at school.  They may or may not be using drugs, engaging in sex with multiple partners, hurting themselves, refusing to eat or to speak, sneaking out at night or disappearing for days on end.  They may or may not be failing in school.  They may or may not be hiding in the basement of their parents’ house.  In any event, many have been seeing one or more therapists, and things are either not improving or are getting worse.  Most do not want to go to wilderness, or anywhere else for that matter.  Not surprisingly, this is the point at which critics of the industry suggest that children should be able to drive their own therapy.  Unfortunately, many of them have been, and it has not been successful.  It is at this juncture that parents have to exert control and decide–is this step right for my child, and if so, which program do I choose?

Understand that the basic premise of wilderness is to remove a child from their current environment.  The idea is that by removing all distractions, the child will be forced to confront their issues and/or their concerns, and will do so in a structured way in an unstructured environment (we cannot control whether or not it rains, but we can control whether or not to put up a tarp to keep us dry).  They will have the opportunity throughout the day and the night, 24/7, to discuss or to explore their feelings and the factors that have led them to this place.  In a good program, they will work with carefully trained field staff and therapists to find their “genuine” self, to build self-esteem and self-efficacy through self-care, to understand how big the world really is and yet how much one person can have an impact on it, to appreciate the importance of relationships to survival and to joy, and to rebuild those relationships that were almost destroyed.  For families, it can serve as a break, but families also need to take part in their own therapeutic work if only to better understand the child who is now living in a tent.

I liken wilderness to a honeymoon.  The participants might be a bit nervous or anxious at first, but once they “figure things out” they don’t want to leave.  It never ceases to amaze me how often my clients leave wilderness stating that beyond wanting a shower they did not want to leave the field.  It can be and often is that powerful an experience.  And some do move on to become field staff or therapists themselves.  They loved it that much.  Still, it is only the beginning, and most students need additional therapeutic work when they return home.  After all, the honeymoon is only the beginning stage of a marriage.  Wilderness is the kick-start or beginning stage to an emotionally healthy life.

So here are some things to consider when making this very difficult and very personal decision:

  • If your child is regressing and/or you feel helpless to help them, you likely need outside support.  If outpatient therapy has not worked for your child and/or is not making a difference in their behaviors or attitude, you may need to think about alternatives, which could include wilderness.  Speak with someone who is familiar with such programs, though, and do not rely on the Internet or your friend’s cousin’s sister’s step child’s experience.  Your child is unique and may have very different needs from someone else.
  • What work are you willing to do or have you done?  A family system needs work when anyone in that system is struggling, regardless of the reason.  Perhaps you have been too distant, perhaps your child needs their own space, perhaps everyone in the family shuts down when there are strong feelings expressed, or perhaps everyone expresses their feelings so strongly that nothing is solved.  If a child is doing their therapeutic work, the family needs to do theirs as well.  Positive change can only continue if things change at home–even if the change is small it can be powerful.
  • If you are looking for a “quick fix” wilderness is not going to help.  Often students who attend a wilderness program take part in additional therapeutic work after they leave.  This might include returning to their home therapist or attending a therapeutic school.  Wilderness is the kick-starter, not the cure!
  • Some families might not want to spend the money for wilderness.  There are a variety of programs out there and the costs range widely as well.  I cannot tell a family how to spend their money.  What I can suggest is for a family to consider where they are now and where they think their current course of action will lead them.  If that action is leading to a good place, then keep your child home.  If things are not going well, wilderness should be seen as an investment towards change.
  • If a child is making progress in therapy, then there is no reason to send them away.  On the other hand, a short-term summer program might be a nice break for everyone, but it should be agreed upon with the child if they are in fact making progress (and therefore the right program will be essential to prevent “undoing” all that good work).

For more information on whether or not wilderness is right for your child, please find someone who is knowledgeable about such programs and what they can or cannot do for your family.  Independent Educational Consultants who specialize in working with therapeutic programs (http://www.iecaonline.com), the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (http://www.natsap.org), or the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (http://www.obhcouncil.com) are good places to begin.

What is Therapeutic Wilderness?

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