What Is Wilderness Therapy?

Young woman leading a hike

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What Is Wilderness Therapy? 

Wilderness therapy is an experiential form of therapy that combines outdoor experiences and therapy sessions.

“Wilderness therapy can provide an encouraging and understanding milieu for self-discovery. The idea is to learn how to live within a group, develop relationships, and recognize your own capacity for strength,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a licensed psychologist with a private practice.

“Wilderness therapy is most often used for at-risk adolescents that are placed in environments that are supposed to mimic the challenges within their natural social structures,” says Romanoff.

This form of therapy is sometimes offered for families and couples too, as it can be a bonding experience. Doing a wilderness program together can also help families with troubled adolescents address their issues, work on their relationships, and heal as a family.

Types of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is one of two types of therapy that is practiced in outdoor settings. Romanoff outlines these forms of therapy and what they involve:

  • Wilderness therapy: This form of therapy involves outdoor activities and focuses on perseverance and flexibility.
  • Adventure therapy: This form of therapy includes adventure activities. It is about pushing yourself and taking both physical and emotional risks.

Techniques

“Wilderness therapy techniques include adventures, survival skills training, and group bonding activities. While these techniques provide the content of the therapy, the transformation occurs during the process as unproductive beliefs and behaviors arise during these situations and have the potential to be transformed,” says Romanoff.

These are some of the outdoor activities wilderness therapy can involve:

  • Expeditions: These can include exploratory or survival expeditions that are often performed in groups. They can help equip you with survival skills, encourage teamwork, and improve trust and cooperation.
  • Games: Wilderness therapy can involve games and problem-solving activities that can boost your confidence, self-esteem, and leadership skills as you solve challenges and overcome obstacles.
  • Adventures: You may also do some adventure activities, such as hiking, ziplining, boating, and rock climbing, that can help you push yourself physically and emotionally.
  • Recreational activities: Wilderness therapy also often includes outdoor recreational activities that can help with self-discovery as you spend time in nature, away from your usual environment.

In addition to these activities, wilderness therapy includes therapy sessions with mental health professionals. The sessions are often conducted in a group setting; however, they can include individual sessions and support groups as well. Therapists work on challenging negative beliefs and behaviors and replacing them with healthier, more positive thought patterns.

Depending on the program you opt for, you may be placed with others who are the same age as you, or face the same issues. Some programs combine people who are at different stages of treatment; those who have been in the program longer can offer mentorship, guidance, inspiration, and peer support to beginners.

What Wilderness Therapy Can Help With

Wilderness therapy may be helpful with mental health conditions such as:

Additionally, wilderness therapy can also help teenagers with issues like low self-esteem, avoidance, defiance, and impulsive, reckless, or rebellious behavior.

The initial stages of wilderness therapy can involve assessing participants to determine what issues they might have.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

These are some of the benefits wilderness therapy can offer:

  • Manage emotions: Being an experiential form of therapy, wilderness therapy can be immersive and help you experience thoughts and emotions that you may have been unaware of. It can help you process these emotions, give you better control over them, and help you understand yourself better.
  • Strengthen relationships: This form of therapy often involves group activities that require teamwork and cooperation, which can help you build strong relationships. Eventually, this can help improve your relationships with your family and friends outside the wilderness therapy setting as well.
  • Instill responsibility: Wilderness therapy can teach you survival skills and increase your sense of responsibility.
  • Build confidence: Wilderness therapy involves overcoming physical challenges as well as negative thoughts and beliefs, which can improve your self-esteem and make you more confident.
  • Reduce negativity: Wilderness can help you replace negative thoughts and behaviors with healthier, more positive thought patterns.
  • Develop coping skills: Wilderness therapy can equip you with coping skills that can come in handy in other aspects of your life, including at home, school, or work.
  • Encourage personal development: This form of therapy can help you become more self-aware. It can also help you develop leadership skills and a stronger work ethic.
  • Improve health and fitness: Being physically active, spending time in nature, and having limited access to electronics can help improve your health and make you fitter.

According to a 2016 study, the experiential nature of wilderness therapy; group activities; natural surroundings; being away from home; and success with outdoor activities and physical challenges are some of the aspects that make wilderness therapy beneficial.

Effectiveness

Wilderness therapy programs have a rocky history. Even today, many programs struggle to achieve desired outcomes, says Romanoff.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

This form of therapy is quite controversial due to concerns about the quality of care and effectiveness of treatment provided.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

“There is a high degree of variability of treatment modalities across each program. While some programs operate more like an adolescent ‘boot camp,’ they will market themselves as wilderness therapy treatment centers, sometimes luring in desperate parents through deception,” says Romanoff.

There have been attempts to formulate best practices and quality standards for this form of therapy, which have led to the establishment of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative, now known as the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center. The center also conducts research on the effectiveness of wilderness therapy.

According to a 2017 study, there is a growing amount of evidence that demonstrates that wilderness and adventure therapy have significant positive outcomes, giving the field more credibility.

For instance, a small study found that a 10-week wilderness and adventure therapy program in Australia helped adolescents with psychological, behavioral, and psychosocial issues. According to the study, the program improved their social self-esteem and psychological resilience.

Another study notes that there have been increased efforts to ensure that programs and practitioners are licensed and accredited.

Things to Consider

Wilderness therapy can be both lengthy and expensive. According to Romanoff, treatment can cost over $500 per day and last several months. If you are considering this form of therapy, you will need to arrange for several weeks off from your other responsibilities. You should also check your insurance plan, because many plans don’t cover wilderness therapy programs.

It’s also worth noting that wilderness therapy may not be completely effective by itself; it is often used as a complementary form of therapy in addition to other forms of therapy.

How to Get Started

When it comes to wilderness therapy, it is important to choose an accredited program with licensed practitioners.

Your friends or family may be able to suggest a program they have tried before, which can help ensure that it is safe and reliable. If you are seeing a mental healthcare provider, they may be able to refer you to a good program, if they think this form of therapy could be beneficial for you.

It can also be helpful to check out reviews of the program, to ensure that there are no health, safety, or ethical concerns linked to it.

Once you have identified a provider, it may be a good idea to visit and check it out—if you are able to—before you sign up. A wilderness camp or boot camp isn’t the same as a wilderness therapy program, so make sure it’s what you’re looking for.

A Word From Verywell

Wilderness therapy involves leaving familiar surroundings to be immersed in nature, where a combination of outdoor activities and therapy sessions help you discover yourself and address any issues you might have.

However, with this form of therapy, it is particularly important to ensure you choose a safe, licensed, and accredited program that has proven to be effective, as you’ll be spending several weeks away from home and your loved ones.

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Article Sources
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  2. Harper NJ. Wilderness therapy, therapeutic camping, and adventure education in child and youth care literature: a scoping review. Children and Youth Services Review. 2017;83:68-79. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.10.030

  3. Bowen DJ, Neill JT, Crisp SJR. Wilderness adventure therapy effects on the mental health of youth participants. Evaluation and Program Planning. 2016;58:49-59. doi:10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2016.05.005