What is wilderness therapy? This is a topic still being discussed in the academic community as wilderness therapy can take many forms through various different activities. Though there are generally two types of wilderness therapy, expedition and base camp (Russell, 1999; Russell and Hendee, 1999). Expedition programs remain in the field for the duration of the treatment process, while base camp programs have a structured base camp, leave on an expedition for a period of time and return to the base camp for follow-up activities” (Russell, Hendee and Phillips-Miller, 2001). Though there are minor differences between the various forms of wilderness therapy, they all tend to illicit a similar therapeutic effect. At the core of every form of wilderness therapy is an element of isolation, which allows individuals time for extended periods of self-reflection.
Each form of wilderness therapy tend to follow similar phases of progression. The first phase involves individuals cleansing themselves of their destructive dependencies through isolation in the wilderness. In the next phase individuals learn personal care and responsibility through the natural consequences by living out in the wilderness. In isolation individuals learn to appreciate things such as the basic necessities. Without the distractions of home, individuals have time to reflect about themselves and the important things they value in their life. Then the final phase is about preparing to transition those lessons learned out in the wilderness for use in an individual’s day-to-day life upon returning home. By tackling the mental and physical challenges of living in the wilderness individuals discover a new feeling of self-worth and those things they value the most in their life (Russell, Hendee and Phillips-Miller, 2001).
Wilderness therapy, when utilized properly, is a powerful tool to help those struggling with issues that are often prone to adolescent individuals. Adolescence is a critical time for mental, social, and emotional development. There is a lot potential for individual growth and development during this time, but at the same time there is the risk of rejection and isolation stunting said development. For those struggling with mental and behavioral issues, these risks are greatly increased.
According to the CDC of the adolescent population in U.S., 6.8% suffer from ADHD, 3.5% suffer from behavioral problems, 3.0 % suffer from anxiety, and 2.1% suffer from depression. Additionally, of those surveyed 4.7% reported abusing illegal drugs, 4.2% had abused alcohol, and 2.8% suffered from cigarette dependence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Among adolescent individuals, ages 10-19, the leading causes of death were unintentional injury and suicide. In 2016, unintentional injuries killed 4,999 individuals, a majority of which were due to motor vehicles accidents involving an intoxicated driver. In that same year 2,553 individuals committed suicide (Webappa.cdc.gov, 2016).
For individuals affected by these issues, wilderness therapy has proven to be an effective tool for addressing these problems. With wilderness therapy individuals have the chance to talk themselves through their own problems, while being able to pace their own healing process. Then there is the physical aspect of wilderness therapy, where it is Mother Nature teaches individuals about responsibility through natural consequences. In the wilderness individuals learn they have to be responsible for their own well-being. They learn that if they want food, water, or any other comfort, then they must rely on their own abilities. This not only teaches individuals that they have the ability to self-sufficient, but also teaches them to appreciate the comforts that they have back home.
Due to the unique way wilderness therapy helps troubled adolescence address their issues, many studies have shown promising results when using this method of treatment. One study followed up on 858 individuals two years after their initial treatment. It found that 83% of reported that they were doing better, 58% said they were doing very well, and 81% found that the wilderness therapy was an effective form of treatment. In another study following 900 individuals after their treatment produced similar results. The data produced from this study were shown to be both statistically and clinically significant, with individuals reporting that their improvement in well-being remained one year after their initial treatment (Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, 2018). Showing that those lessons learned through wilderness therapy have an effective and long lasting impact on those who utilize this form of treatment.
Russell, K. (2001). What is Wilderness Therapy?. [online] Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/105382590102400203
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