Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Is Wilderness Therapy Valuable?

Far from the taboo subject it may have been a few decades ago, therapy is finally recognized as a necessary form of healthcare. That being the case, new, innovative forms of therapy have started to emerge.

One such form of therapy is something known simply as “wilderness therapy,” and it’s an increasingly popular method of managing one’s internal strife, but what exactly is wilderness therapy? Moreover, does wilderness therapy actually provide the therapeutic benefits that the programs purport?

Unpacking The Wilderness Therapy Trend

Around 20 years ago when wilderness therapy first gained steam, a clear and consistent definition of the method simply didn’t exist; many different practitioners developed their own styles and the method on whole hadn’t quite been adopted by psychology professionals. As time has gone on, a more defined outline of this therapy started to form.

Basically, wilderness therapy encourages subjects to undergo a period of self-discovery by placing them in the wilderness with very few supplies and expecting them, with the help of guides and mental health professionals, to adopt a sort of primal survival methodology. Often times, participants are required to function as a cohesive team, taking on specific responsibilities so the entire group cannot perform well if even a single person fails to complete their duties.

Today, wilderness therapy programs must be licensed by a state agency, must employ mental health professionals, and must have systems in place for creating individualized treatment plans within the program structure, as well as for evaluating the program’s efficacy. Even the psychology community has now bought into the idea of wilderness therapy.

Of course, the idea of spending time in nature in order to reap therapeutic rewards isn’t exactly a new concept. Henry David Thoreau gained massive fame for lamenting this precise ideal in “Walden” more than 160 years ago, and any therapist worth their salt will tell patients that spending more time outdoors can sometimes help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Still, wilderness therapy isn’t just capitalizing on the intrinsic human clarity that often arrives as a result of time in nature, it is combining that benefit with new coping strategies and increased self-awareness born out of the programs.

In addition to physical cravings, someone with an addiction issue will also spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their drug of choice. These thoughts become a compulsion and impossible to control, which leads to drug-seeking behavior that can sometimes be criminal.

Feelings of depression, sadness, anxiety, despair, and the like are often at the root of substance abuse. The substance might temporarily mask these feelings, but they return once the high wears off, creating a vicious circle of drug abuse.

Taking a substance will temporarily stop the cravings and compulsion for it, but soon the same feelings return. In time, it takes more and more of the same substance to achieve the same effect it once had.

People addicted to drugs and alcohol may feel like they have no control over their drug use. Refraining from using or stopping seems to be an impossibility for them. The substance controls them, rather than the other way around.

Someone addicted to drugs or alcohol will continue to seek them out even if their addiction has made them lose friends, family, spouses, and jobs. Drug-seeking behavior can even lead to diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

The Right Candidate for Wilderness Therapy

Most often, teens are sent to wilderness therapy by their parents as a last-ditch effort to mitigate severe behavioral issues or drug addiction. Sometimes this therapy is tried before other methods; other times more traditional modes have not proven effective and parents are at their wit’s end.  

In any case, there’s no question that wilderness therapy is geared toward troubled youth. It is meant to instill them with a sense of purpose and responsibility, but the methods can be rather extreme. Not to mention, the cost of wilderness therapy programs can far exceed that of most rehabilitation programs.

As for the true effectiveness of wilderness therapy, that remains largely a matter of subjective opinion as far as the scientific community is concerned due to the lack of studies that don’t have a vested interest in these programs.

Results of Wilderness Therapy

Most wilderness therapy programs are overseen in part by the Outdoor Behavioral Health (OBH) Council.

The OBH administers something called a Youth Outcome Questionnaire to both participants in wilderness therapy programs and their parents to gauge how effective the programs under their umbrella really are. 

According to a survey of 858 participants (and their parents) from seven different programs, 81% of respondents felt that wilderness therapy had been effective, and 83% stated that the subjects were doing better. 

It’s worth noting that wilderness therapy conspicuously lacks corroboration from independent studies, but surveys like this seem to indicate that, at least from the perspectives of the participants and their families, something is working. Even some “graduates” of these programs who feel that their paths were certainly corrected by them question whether the methods were so extreme that they were damaging in other ways.

If you are considering treatment for yourself or a loved one, call us today.

Finding The Right Wilderness Therapy Program

Families seeking the assistance of a wilderness therapy program should take care to find one that has been properly accredited.

The OBH offers a voluntary accreditation, and although this isn’t required of a program in order for it to be legitimate, it’s a testament to the program’s commitment to the industry. 

More importantly, every wilderness therapy program should be licensed by the state. Not only does this license indicate that a program has legitimate mental health clinicians on staff, but it also speaks to the fact that the programs have been cleared to use public land by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Programs should be able to provide documentation that proves they are licensed, and they should be able to speak in very specific terms about their program’s methodology, as well as the qualifications of their staff. These are not simply adventurous experiences; they are rigorous programs that should have solid scientific backing.

Though it may seem like semantics, some adventure-based or wilderness programs will simply omit the use of the word “therapy,” which is an easy way around the requirement for proper licensing. They may involve some of the same program components, but they aren’t regulated in the same way.

Choosing The Best Therapeutic Methods for Troubled Youth

For parents of adolescent children grappling with issues as serious as substance abuse, internal alarm bells can lead to the adoption of extreme measures. While wilderness therapy is effective for some young people, it’s not the only way to curb addiction and set them back on the right path.

To explore some other more evidence-based methods of therapy that can prove more effective in changing the trajectory of a teen or young adult currently struggling, contact Nexus Recovery for a free and confidential consultation.

If you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, we’re here to help. Contact us today and speak with one of our trusted recovery advisors.

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