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Wilderness Therapy

Updated 27 October 2022 Written by Clint MallyClinically Reviewed by Sarah Fletcher, LPC, LAC
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WILDERNESS THERAPY

Sometimes the best way to make a change in your life is to go on an adventure. Many teens and young adults have a hard time opening up during talk therapy with a single mental health professional in an office.

Wilderness therapy, on the other hand, takes a group of young people out into nature for weeks at a time. With the assistance of field staff and therapists, young people are encouraged to explore themselves and the world in ways that promote healing and self-discovery.

How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Wilderness therapy, also known as outdoor behavioral healthcare, combines individual therapy, group therapy and experiential education. It might involve time alone writing in a journal, building a fire with primitive tools, speaking with your therapist on a hike or sitting around a campfire and talking about your life with other participants.

These and other activities take place in a natural setting; the average wilderness therapy program lasts between eight and ten weeks. Adolescent programs often place participants in same-gender groups, though this practice is changing as understanding of gender diversity and nonbinary gender identities grows.

This extended period of time in nature helps to break old habits that keep us stuck, such as:

  • Avoiding difficult emotions
  • Numbing pain through substance use
  • Hiding out in your room

In the words of therapeutic and educational placement specialist Patrick M. Burns, “Wilderness therapy does three things very well: assess the issues, help the young person develop coping strategies, and emerge with a more positive sense of self and hope for the future.”

Wilderness Therapy Programs

Wilderness therapy programs are usually based on a treatment plan created by mental health professionals and staff members, individualized for each participant. In addition to working with therapists to transform maladaptive beliefs and behaviors, participants work with each other to complete tasks, such as setting up a tent.

Through individual and group activities, wilderness therapy helps participants develop self-confidence, communication and relationship-building skills, and trust. Being outdoors for this extended period of time also promotes participants’ physical health.

Psychologist Andrew Erkis explains how wilderness therapy benefits teens and young adults: “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.”

Wilderness Therapy’s Effectiveness for Teens and Young Adults

Though these programs have expanded in recent years, they were originally designed for adolescents and young adults. The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative has conducted multiple studies that show that wilderness therapy helps young people with:

Anxiety
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Eating Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Depression
Substance Use Disorders
Trauma
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

An ongoing challenge in accessing wilderness therapy is the high cost of most programs since insurance plans generally don’t cover more than one session. Program quality also varies, so parents are wise to research programs run by licensed mental health professionals and that attend to the ethical, safety and health issues that can arise in the outdoors.

Wilderness Therapy for Substance Abuse Treatment

Wilderness therapy is focused on helping people replace harmful behaviors with healthy ones. As such, if you’re using substances to cope with difficult life situations, wilderness therapy supports you in developing more effective strategies. The therapists, staff members and other participants can help you manage a challenging experience as it happens in a wilderness setting and respond in ways that leave you feeling stronger and more connected to yourself and others.

Wilderness Therapy for Young People in Recovery

At Sandstone Care, our goal is to provide excellent support for teens struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. We’re happy to answer any questions you have about wilderness therapy and provide you with several treatment options if we’re not the right fit for you. Call (888) 850-1890 to learn more.

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We’re available 7 days a week to help answer any questions you may have.