What are Therapeutic Wilderness Programs?
Many social critics argue that today’s youth face more serious and critical risks than any previous generation. Parents are convinced that their children face a major crisis. Most experts will agree that violence in schools, deteriorating family structure, substance abuse, alarming media images, and gang activity put teens at risk. Wilderness programs use physical activity, exposure to the wilderness, and therapy to help participants through what might be considered “a rough patch” in their lives. Unlike juvenile detention centers, most wilderness programs, at least all the ones I recommend, do not use behavior modification strategies. Instead, they are non-confrontational and rely on exposure to nature to teach students about responsibility, reliability and resourcefulness.
In most therapeutic wilderness programs, students join a group and stay in the field for a period of 42 to 74 days. At times it may be longer depending n the needs of the teen. Groups, which typically vary in size from four to 12 members, cook, engage in activities that match their surroundings and time of year (weather), help with local community needs (when applicable for the student), gather kindling, engage in academics, learn new skills, meet with their therapist, participate in groups, write in their journal and write letters home. Some programs focus on survival skills, such as making fires, cooking, first aid, minimal impact camping, hiking, route-finding and primitive living. Each participant has a responsibility to the group and themselves. Safety is ensured by expert trained field staff.
Although these programs do not work directly with insurance companies many parents have been successful in getting a portion, if not all, of the costs reimbursed through their insurance company. Upon completion, the program can break down all therapeutic costs, which include (on the average) individual therapy weekly, group therapy twice weekly, and group processing daily. In addition, they will break down admissions fees, gear fees and residential fees when requested
Participants in wilderness therapy programs usually fall in the “at-risk youth” category. At-risk teens are in danger of making poor life decisions because of environmental, social, family and behavioral issues. Students are usually between 13 and 17; after that age, parents are no longer legally able to make decisions for their child. There are therapeutic wilderness programs for pre-teens as well as young adults, so everyone can benefit from this experience when needed.
The reasons a child is sent to a therapeutic wilderness program vary, but common issues include adoption struggles, clinical needs, drug and alcohol abuse, family challenges, gang involvement, low self-esteem, prescription drug abuse, running away, stealing, violence, depression, promiscuity, antisocial behavior and poor academic performance.
By removing children from their comfortable environment and bad influences, a therapeutic wilderness program removes distractions that can hinder insight while in therapy. Students do not have access to cell phones, cars, computers, televisions, their usual friends, family, drugs, or alcohol. They focus on things such as: admitting to what was and has really been going on at hem and in school; behaviors that have caused troubles; academic failure; feelings of depression; eating healthy; making amends with their family; new coping skills; open communication; responsibility for themselves and how their actions affect others. Therapeutic wilderness programs use a “no-resistance” approach, meaning force and confrontation are not used and children must improve based on the natural consequences of their actions.
Students quickly see and feel the impact of their actions.
Therapeutic wilderness programs involve several forms of direct and indirect therapy. The experience of being in the wilderness — exposure to unfamiliar settings, learning new skills, and deprivation of normal everyday comfortable items — is itself a major component of therapy. Students work with licensed therapists to finish assignments and work through their problems; therapists do not usually stay with groups, but visit once or twice a week. Many wilderness programs also use less formal forms of group therapy to process lessons, improve communication and air grievances. Therapeutic wilderness programs are clinically driven treatment models.
The Family Solutions Teen Help website has some of the best therapeutic wilderness programs listed.
Many are located in the West, where the expanses of wilderness are used as field areas for groups. Many are located in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Utah.
About the Author
Dore Frances, Ph.D .began her small independent therapeutic consulting practice as an Advocate for children with learning disabilities in Pacific Grove, California in 1988. In her work as a Child Advocate, she became familiar with the processes and strategies families develop to find appropriate educational matches for their children. He written work has appeared in Monterey County Herald, Seventeen Magazine, and numerous other journals. A frequent traveler to all programs and schools she recommends, she also has penned articles about different types of programs. Dr. Frances has a Master’s Degree in Child & Family Studies and a Doctorate of Applied Human Development in Child and Family Development with an emphasis in Diverse Families and a minor in Child Advocacy.