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Wilderness Therapy For Young Adults

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau, MSCP, LPCI, NCC

February 11, 2019

Wilderness therapy is supposed to help promote comprehensive healing as people connect with nature, but it is not a proven treatment method for addiction. Some of our facilities will use wilderness services during treatment to engage patients, like young adults especially, in outdoor activities that may aid in the recovery process.

As addiction strikes young adults at an alarmingly increasing level, it is important to fine-tune treatment methods in order to ensure success. One method that is gaining more traction and popularity is wilderness therapy. Groups are popping up all across the country offering this treatment and many are becoming very successful in identifying addictive behaviors and beating them.

This guide will help you understand what you or a loved one will experience when in wilderness therapy. Whether you’re a parent who wants to help your child beat addiction or are that child and you want help, this guide will give you most, if not all, of the information you need. Read through it thoroughly before signing up for any program to see if it is right for you or your loved one’s addiction needs.

Understanding The Basics Of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is a technique that is designed to remove young adults from a negative drug atmosphere and to place them in a positive and supporting natural environment. Typically, a stay lasts anywhere from 45 days to up to 10 weeks. The basic approach in this treatment method is to focus on intensive emotional insight that helps lead clients to discovering methods of monitoring their sobriety.

Most wilderness therapy treatments will use various therapy sessions to help identify the causes of your addiction and how to eliminate them. Intensive individual therapy is practiced for a minimum of three or four hours every week, while group therapy is often performed for over four hours. Family communication sessions will also be available, as will various clinical methods, such as occupational therapy and stress management.

The main thrust of a typical wilderness therapy session lies in combining these treatment methods with a variety of adventures. For example, young adults with drug problems will be taken white-water rafting, fly fishing, mountaineering, backpacking, and even hiking up mountains. They may learn how to identify various trees or birds and even have up-close experiences with wild animals.

Basically, they will be placed in a challenging environment that will force them to adapt in a variety of ways that will challenge their mind and help break their addiction. It takes a concentrated effort and a lot of focus to perform, but for many people, it is more than worth the effort.

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Effectiveness Of This Treatment Method

The effectiveness of wilderness therapy has been gauged multiple times, and just about every time, the results are positive. In a paper by Tori DeAngelis of the American Psychological Association, entitled Therapy Gone Wild: More Psychologists Are Using The Wilderness As A Backdrop And Therapeutic Tool In Their Work, DeAngelis studied a wilderness therapy program founded in 1998.

This group was run by Dr. Andrew Erkis, who staffs his four campuses with at least two or three doctoral psychologists and other mental health specialists to treat mental health disorders and addiction. Each group was broken down into single genders and included peer mentoring and peer monitoring alongside other treatment methods.

The interesting thing about peer mentoring and monitoring was that it helped increase the effectiveness of the program by bringing everyone in the group onto the same page. Anyone who broke the rules was quickly removed from the situation. This helped not only eliminate a problematic element, but gave other people in the group a sense of accomplishment in sticking to the program. Even more importantly, each attendee was given a different treatment method in order to better ensure success.

Erkis had this to say about the effectiveness of wilderness therapy programs: “They’re in an emotionally safe place, they’re not going anywhere, and by the way, they’re exercising, they’re eating well, they’re sleeping well — they’re starting to look and feel great.” Basically, they work by not only helping young adults mentally, but physically. It helps move them through the difficulties of their lives into a new world of health and sobriety.

On a related note, David G. Pearson and Tony Craig wrote the article The Great Outdoors? Exploring The Mental Health Benefits Of Natural Environments to test the mental health benefit of spending more time out of doors. They were concerned that increasing urbanization has pulled people out of their natural habitat and that it is causing a variety of mental health problems, including problems with drug addiction. This is especially true in young adults who have rarely, if ever, left an urban lifestyle.

Their conclusion was complex, but included this statement: “If the postulated causal relationship between natural environments and mental health is correct, then increasing accessibility to well-maintained green space and instigating behavior change programs that encourage greater interaction with nature could deliver substantial short[-] and long-term benefits to mental health.”

While noting that more research needs to be done before completely confirming the connection, their overall positive attitude was based on various results which found that people felt more at ease, comfortable, and happy in the wilderness. For some young adults, this might require an adjustment period, especially if they are involved in wilderness therapy. However, the obvious physical and mental health benefits are abundant.

Typical Treatment Procedure

Wilderness therapy treatments will vary based on the exact program used. However, Keith C. Russell and John C. Hendee of the U.S. Forest Service wrote an article entitled Wilderness Therapy as an Intervention and Treatment for Adolescents with Behavioral Problems. In it, they examined the methods inherent in wilderness therapy treatments. They explored various methods and the techniques utilized and helped weigh their efficacy.

They also outlined a few activities that are performed nearly every day in order to foster a better sense of physical and emotional health. A typical day in a wilderness therapy programs goes through many steps, including the following:

  • Waking up in the morning to prepare breakfast
  • Getting any withdrawal or replacement medicines that need to be taken
  • Receiving a schedule for the day’s activities
  • Performing a variety of physically challenging tasks in the wilderness, such as hiking or mountain climbing
  • Team-work oriented tasks that challenge and improve socialization skills
  • Lunch and break time when they can relax and regain their bearings
  • More physical activities designed to test their body
  • Sessions in group and individual counseling
  • Journaling to keep track of thoughts and feelings
  • Alternative treatment methods, such as yoga and meditation, to clear the mind and promote self-evaluation
  • Dinner and relaxation time, during which people can freely mingle
  • Bed time

No two days should be the same in wilderness therapy. For example, one day might focus heavily on physical activities, while another will be more on self-reflection. On these days, young adults can meditate or pray about their problems in whatever way they want. On mental health days, they may have to go through several different treatment methods, including individual therapy, group therapy, family sessions, and behavior adjustments.

They Aren’t Boot Camps

One misconception that often plagues the minds of many young adults is that wilderness therapy is boot camp. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Boot camps are typically harsh places, where young adults may be treated negatively, sometimes even cruelly. Wilderness therapy is designed as a positive method of reinforcement that helps young adults fight through their addiction and emerge as a sober individual.

Boot camps commonly use fear and intimidation to try to get a young adult to change. They may even threaten the physical safety of a young adult or even harm them. Young adults in wilderness therapy are treated fairly, never yelled at, and given a fair chance to change. They are experiencing a fun and exciting lifestyle that promotes better mental health. Wilderness therapy is also more realistic than boot camps, as it more readily addresses a young adult’s needs.

Dr. Marty Beyer, a respected psychiatrist, wrote a blog entitled “Juvenile Boot Camps Don’t Make Sense,” in which he said: “Parents search for a wise balance of love and limits to meet their teenagers’ needs. The adult criminal system in general, and boot camps in particular, fail the basic test of balancing nurturing and opportunities for independence.”

Essentially, he was arguing that young adults simply have different psychological needs than adults. Treating them like adults, even when they commit serious crimes, is unfair because it doesn’t address their mental health concerns. Trying to “scare” a young adult out of drug use is only going to cause more trauma and potentially contribute to their mental health problems, further worsening addiction. Instead, young adults need care, positive affection, and even love to recover.

Typical Skills Learned In Wilderness Therapy

When you’re in wilderness therapy, you will learn a variety of skills that are designed to help you beat your addiction for the rest of your life. Many of these skills will help accelerate your maturation into an adult and give you an upper hand on many of your peers. They can also help you fend off the advance of any other addiction and stay healthy and clean. Skills that you typically learn in a wilderness therapy session include:

  • Coping with relapse and craving concerns
  • Better health and hygiene methods
  • A stronger focus on promoting your own physical health
  • New outdoor adventure techniques
  • Expansive mental health coping mechanisms that can help you manage your problematic thinking
  • Better socialization skills with your peers and elders
  • Handling stressful situations in a more constructive manner
  • Ways to say “no” should drugs or alcohol be offered to you
  • Relaxation techniques to calm your mind
  • Aftercare techniques to better integrate into your life outside of therapy

This last step is particularly important because it offers teens (who suffer from typically low self-esteem and an obsession with peer acceptance) a way to emerge from wilderness therapy as a happy person, one who is full of confidence. This gives them a better chance at fully recovering and gaining the acceptance they need to feel like a successful person.

Preparing For Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is unlike other treatment methods because it challenges your body and mind in unique ways. While this makes it a very effective treatment method, it also makes it difficult for many people. The demands of the therapy are rather unique, but you can prepare for them by performing a few simple steps.

Camping for a few days with sober friends (or parents) is often a great way to ease your way into wilderness therapy. It will help introduce you to some of the demands that this treatment puts on you and help you gain more confidence in a strange and challenging environment. It can also help create a stronger mental balance by removing you from a stressful and negative place.

You should also start changing your diet to include healthy foods that are easy to take into a natural environment. You may be eating a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers while on your trip, but you’re also likely to eat some dried fruit (easier to store and handle than raw fruit), vegetable drinks, various high-fiber breads, and dried meat. Changing your diet in this way a week or two before you leave can help make your adjustment easier and boost your overall physical health.

Exercising, even if it’s just walking for an hour every day, is also vital. This will help increase your cardiovascular health and prepare your body for the vigor of outdoorsy activity. You’re going to be moving a lot, perhaps more than you have ever done in your whole life. Two or three weeks of exercise before wilderness therapy can help get you in better shape and prepare you for the demands of this fulfilling treatment.

It’s also a good idea to start performing a few relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation. While challenging, they can clear your mind of negative thoughts and give you a new focus. You’re going to need that kind of focus in wilderness therapy, as it will challenge many aspects of your personality and force you to change who you are in a healthy way. But you’ll find it’s totally worth it.

American Psychological Association - Therapy gone wild

US Forest Service - Wilderness Therapy as an Intervention and Treatment for Adolescents with Behavioral Problems

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