Wilderness therapy, also sometimes referred to as outdoor behavioral healthcare, is a treatment for mental health disorders that occurs outdoors and out in nature. Against the backdrop of gorgeous trees, fields, beaches, etc, individuals learn coping skills and address trauma in order to heal from mental illness. 

History of Wilderness Therapy

This kind of therapy seems like something that likely just cropped up in the last decade. However, the benefits of therapy work being done outside have been documented since the early 1900s! It was observed that patients that were forced to move from inside asylum walls to the outdoors (due to things like disease and natural disasters) displayed improvements to their mental health almost immediately, including a significant reduction in violent behavior. 

In 1941, the first outdoor education program was founded by German educator Kurt Hahn and businessman Lawrence Holt. Outward Bound was created to encourage self-discovery and personal growth through the challenges of exploring and living in the wilderness. By the early 1970s, the program had become highly established as an alternative treatment strategy for adolescents with behavioral issues. The success of Outward Bound led to the creation of similar wilderness experience programs that embraced the Outward Bound model.

Since the expansion of these kinds of programs, there has been significant growth in the research surrounding the effectiveness of outdoor and wilderness therapy. Proponents of these programs are aiming to establish a concrete foundation of empirical evidence for its effectiveness.

How does Wilderness Therapy work?

In the busy hustle and bustle of everyday life, there is little time for introspection or self-reflection. People are constantly bombarded with stressors and everyday responsibilities that take their focus off of themselves and their own self-improvement. Not only that but with modern technology permeating every corner of society, there is a wealth of distractions at our fingertips at all times.

The goals of wilderness therapy are:

  • To perform a therapeutic assessment
  • To intervene and treat problem behaviors
  • To provide safety and stabilization
  • To teach lifelong coping skills and manifest permanent change

In order to meet these goals, wilderness therapy programs provide:

  • Change of environment, in which participants are immersed in nature.
  • Challenging experiences that facilitate self-discovery and personal growth. These also help to develop resilience and self-efficacy. 
  • Healthy relationship development through peer groups.
  • Therapy in individual and group settings to stimulate self-reflection and build coping skills.
  • Skills through programming and educational curricula. These are not just limited to personal growth and development, but also practical wilderness survival skills.

Why does Outdoor Therapy work?

In 2003, Keith Russell, researcher, and Professor of Outdoor Education at Western Washington University, alongside the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative, conducted one of the very first empirical investigations into the effectiveness of wilderness programs on improving mental health and behavior. He gathered this data using a large sample of adolescents who were enrolled in multiple wilderness programs, and then revisited and updated the study in 2005. According to Redcliff Ascent, Russell found that:

  • Over 80% of parents contacted perceived wilderness therapy as effective.
  • 83% of adolescents were doing better.
  • Of the 83%, 58% were doing well or very well.
  • 17% were still “struggling.”
  • Over 90% of adolescents contacted perceived wilderness therapy as effective.
  • Participants were also doing well in school.
  • 86% were in high school or college, or had graduated from high school and were working.
  • 7% graduated from high school, yet were living at home and “doing nothing.”
  • 6% had not graduated from high school, were living at home, and working or “doing nothing.”
  • 1 participant was in prison.
  • A majority reported that family communication had improved.

The phases of wilderness therapy

Most wilderness therapy programs follow these three phases:

Cleansing Phase

The cleansing phase is the first step to entering a wilderness therapy program. The goal of this phase is to remove clients from their previous environments and put them into a new environment that is more conducive to healing. In certain programs, this phase might include a physical fitness regimen or a diet plan. The treatment staff usually steps back during this stage to let participants have time to adjust to wilderness living. This phase is sort of an ease-in to the main phase of the program. 

Personal and Social Responsibility Phase

This is the main part of the treatment, where clients learn accountability for their actions through peer interaction and natural consequences. During the challenges and activities in wilderness therapy, clients must choose to take responsibility for their choices or suffer the consequences. This experience also helps teach them that self-care and personal responsibility are essential for their wellbeing. Each activity or chore has direct consequences if not performed. For example, if they do not want to make a fire, they will be cold and unable to cook hot meals. This teaches participants that their actions have consequences to themselves and others outside of treatment. 

Transition and Aftercare Phase

This is the final phase of treatment. This step is a continuation outside of the program to help the client transition back into their regular routine and environment. The professionals on staff work with clients so that they may continue to process the lessons they’ve learned in the program, and teach them how to apply those lessons to their day-to-day life. 

How to choose the right wilderness therapy program

Not all wilderness therapy programs are created equal. Each one has its own way of doing things, so if you’re interested in participating or having a loved one participate, you will want to do some extensive research. However, good programs will have:

  • A clearly-defined, safe operational structure in place
  • Trained, licensed, and highly qualified staff and proper equipment to meet your needs
  • A staff that acts in accordance with state regulations
  • A deep understanding of the mental health issue or issues you or a loved one are seeking therapy for.

In conclusion
Wilderness therapy is a great alternative to conventional forms of treatment, especially for those who haven’t seen much success with other more common types of therapies. Plus, the evidence we’ve seen coming out of recent studies shows that these programs can be really, really life-changing! If you are interested in this type of therapy, do a Google search and see if they have opportunities in your area. They are becoming more and more popular, so you are bound to find one that suits your needs. 

Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2009. Call 602-346-9142.