Wilderness therapy, or wilderness treatment, is a form of therapy often focused on adolescents. It was popular in the past few decades, although recent trends have been away from wilderness programs and more toward residential treatment options. I myself went to wilderness when I was young, and had an interesting experience. Whether a teenager is struggling with behavioral issues or substance abuse, wilderness is an option many parents and loved ones consider. When children begin using multiple drugs, it can be scary and cause severe consequences. You can learn more about polysubstance abuse and its dangers on Comfort Recovery.
What is Wilderness Treatment?
Sometimes referred to as outdoor behavioral healthcare, wilderness therapy is a form of treatment for behavioral issues and substance abuse disorder. There are many different organizations offering varying programs for wilderness treatment, but there is a general format. Most often catered to teenagers and young adults, individuals are sent to a remote area. This can offer some freedom from temptation, worrying about friends and what they’re doing, and allow the individual to really focus on themselves.
Although each program has different offerings, individuals are generally encouraged to engage with their community in wilderness, partake in individual therapy, and hike. For individuals struggling with substance abuse, the wilderness setting can give them a reprieve from the temptation to use that they may experience in normal daily life. Individuals are offered a mix of life skills training, individual therapy, group therapy, and time to learn to interact with their community.
Why Go to Wilderness Therapy?
People send their loved ones to wilderness therapy for a variety of reasons. First, wilderness offers a way for individuals to get out of their comfort zone and begin to investigate their lives and behavior. Whether this is drug or alcohol abuse, behavioral issues, or something else, wilderness offers a time to be isolated from daily distractions and focus on ourselves. Those that go to wilderness treatment are offered the opportunity to separate themselves from the difficulties of daily living. Sometimes called therapy gone wild this can bring strong therapeutic benefit.
In some cases, families just don’t know what to do with a struggling teenager. Wilderness treatment is a way for families to know that their children are safe and getting help. Sometimes the best thing for everyone involved in these difficult situations is some space and time to rethink and consider what the next steps are. This time in wilderness offers the adolescent therapy, periods of self-reflection, and the opportunity to buy some time until everyone figures out what may be best for the individual moving forward.
I went to a wilderness-based treatment program when I was sixteen years old. My parents hired youth transports, or people who specialize in helping young people get to treatment. They took me in the middle of the night, got me on a plane and brought me to the office of the program. I of course was scared, as anyone is flying headfirst into the unknown. The process was not joyful at the time, and I remember being pretty shut down emotionally.
Over the course of my 12 weeks in wilderness, I engaged in group activities, met with a therapist regularly, and really worked hard. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t the screw-up of the group. Everyone had similar stories and I fit in pretty well with everyone. I did see a therapist every week and get some good help there as well. The big plus side of wilderness for me was that it helped me see that my life had become quite chaotic, and that my behavior was harming others. I remember thinking at one point during my first few weeks that my parents were so overwhelmed by me and my behavior in the house that they really didn’t know what to do with me other than send me to a wilderness program.
I definitely did not appreciate wilderness when I was there. I ended up going to boarding school and did not stay sober, although I did get sober at 19 and have been sober since. Looking back, I was mostly scared and just following instructions. It was a great opportunity, and it definitely planted some seeds of self-awareness in me. It also helped me for when I did end up getting sober, as I remembered that there were people and places where I felt I fit in with my difficulties.
Wilderness therapy has some benefits that are not offered in traditional treatment programs or therapy modalities. First, there’s the factor of being outside and exercising. There’s quite a bit of research to suggest many benefits of exercise on mental health. Furthermore, being outside in nature can be incredibly healing and supportive of recovery. Instead of therapy indoors in a room lit with fluorescent bulbs, people have the opportunity to engage in self-investigation outdoors.
Wilderness also often stresses the importance of communal involvement. Everything is run in group settings, so people have to learn social skills and how to interact therapeutically in a group. This may be a benefit also found in group therapy forms outside wilderness therapy as well. However, because you are living together in wilderness, there is an added component of camaraderie and social accountability.
There has been a lot of controversy and differing opinions about wilderness therapy and whether or not it is truly beneficial. One of the biggest points of contention raised is that these programs may not offer the level of care many young people need. Although the programs may have psychologists, psychiatrists, and trained staff, some teens need more care than these programs can offer. The daily regimen of hiking, exercising, and taking care of oneself may be overwhelming or triggering for some individuals.
Another large downside is that these programs are often expensive. Some run over $30,000 for an average stay, and many are in the tens of thousands. This makes it a form of treatment that is not available to everyone, as many forms of treatment aren’t.