You knew raising a child wouldn’t be easy, but you didn’t expect it to be this challenging. You barely weathered the terrible twos and precarious pre-school years, and now you’re confronting the tumultuous teens. It’s been a difficult ride, and you keep waiting for it to get better. But what if it doesn’t? Where do you turn if your child is experiencing more than just typical teen angst for which traditional therapy and medication aren’t working?
Judi Robinovitz, a Certified Educational Consultant with a specialty in therapeutic placements, says that a wilderness therapy program can be a superb short-term option for adolescents struggling with significant mental health, behavioral, or emotional issues.
“When parents are frustrated because they’ve tried everything, but their child’s behavior becomes increasingly unmanageable and potentially harmful, we often recommend a wilderness therapy program,” she said. “Wilderness therapy is a great way to jump-start the therapeutic process.”
What is a Wilderness Therapy Program?
“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Wilderness therapy programs combine the restorative power of nature with traditional therapy, experiential education, and individual and group counseling sessions. Students work with licensed mental health professionals and field instructors while participating in outdoor activities like backcountry hiking, camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, gardening, and team-building exercises. Programs are open-ended in length and generally average about 8-10 weeks.
Outdoor therapy programs don’t abandon students in the wilderness as if they’re participating in an episode of Survivor. Instead, students connect with nature in a safe, supportive environment while engaging in collaborative activities that promote confidence and self-esteem, build trust, encourage positive behaviors, and teach effective coping and social skills. By developing self-reflection, participants learn how to change disruptive behavior patterns, channel their emotions, set goals, become accountable, and discover their hidden potential.
Dr. Michael Gass, a leading authority on wilderness therapy, is director of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center at the University of New Hampshire and director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) Research Database Network. He says wilderness programs immerse adolescents in a focused, supportive, and nurturing therapeutic setting.
“Students are placed in an unfamiliar, natural environment with a highly supportive structure and professional staff available to focus on their therapy 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “Daily chores and wilderness activities help students develop strong coping mechanisms, and they learn to take care of themselves and handle stressful situations in a positive way.”
Why Wilderness Therapy?
“Between every two pines, there is a door leading to a new way of life”
Living with a troubled teen, adolescent, or young adult can wreak havoc on the entire family. How can you stop destructive behavior when nothing seems to work or – worse yet – when your child refuses help?
Traditional therapy isn’t always a good fit for a variety of reasons. Some teens aren’t comfortable opening up to a counselor in a sterile, formal office setting, or divulging personal information in group sessions with local peers. Others refuse therapy as a way to gain control, act out, or rebel.
Wilderness therapy, also called outdoor behavioral healthcare, removes teens from the comforts of home and their often-distracting privileges like television, smartphones, and drive-through fast food. Wilderness activities are designed to simulate the challenges teens face in their daily lives, and they learn by experiencing the consequences of their actions. Far away from the people and situations that may have contributed to their destructive behavior, wilderness therapy allows teens to ‘detox’ their minds, bodies, and souls in a tranquil, structured, natural environment more conducive to self-disclosure and self-reflection.
Wilderness therapy programs may be a good fit for at-risk adolescents battling significant mental health and destructive behavioral issues including:
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts/tendencies
- Poor choice of friends
- Ongoing lying
- Sexual identity issues
- Oppositional/defiant behavior
- Anger or aggression
- Self-destructive behaviors
- School truancy, suspension, or dropping out
- Sexual promiscuity
- Reckless behavior
- Illegal activity (stealing, fraud, and other crimes)
Choosing a Wilderness Therapy Program
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
If your teen is acting in or acting out and you believe a wilderness therapy program may be a viable treatment option, how do you find the best-fit program? Dr. Gass suggests choosing a program accredited by the Association for Experiential Education, as these programs must adhere to rigorous standards. It’s also important to ask pertinent questions and verify that potential programs are licensed and insured.
The NATSAP strongly recommends getting professional guidance from an experienced independent educational consultant or other qualified advisor. While your teen’s therapist can provide general direction and may recommend a facility he or she has worked with, an independent educational consultant experienced in therapeutic placements provides a more personalized, in-depth approach. Educational consultants stay up to date on the dozens of wilderness therapy programs throughout the United States in order to work closely with your family to determine not only the program that best matches your child’s needs, but the specific therapist and group of students with whom your son or daughter will fit well. For example, Robinovitz and her team continually visit therapeutic programs to remain informed about their offerings, culture, and success rates. They turn right around and put their knowledge to the best use.
“My team and I start the process by really getting to know your family and child, and by evaluating his or her behavioral and academic history,” she said. “After in-depth conversations with clinical professionals who know your child well, we identify the best program options for your child, and help facilitate placement. We remain in the loop with parents and the wilderness therapist throughout the term of placement by monitoring their child’s progress, advocating for them, and making sure the family’s needs are being met.”
“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
-Frank Lloyd Wright
- Wilderness therapy programs are costly, but some research indicates they can be less expensive than traditional treatments. For example, in a 2019 study, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that the per-person cost of a 90-day outdoor behavioral program was less than other forms of treatment.
- Although outdoor therapy programs may not be covered by insurance, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council and other agencies are lobbying for change. There are also insurance advocates who help families get reimbursed for wilderness therapy after being denied by their insurance companies.
- A qualified educational consultant can advocate for you and can often use her established relationships with therapeutic programs to negotiate financial grants, reduced rates, or scholarships.
Beyond the Wilderness
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson
Wilderness therapy programs aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and they aren’t typically intended as a stand-alone treatment. Instead, wilderness therapy is generally a short-term intervention that’s part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Upon completion of an outdoor therapeutic program, you’ll determine with your child’s wilderness therapist and educational consultant if coming home – and continuing treatment with a home-based therapist – is the best next step, or if continuing on to a therapeutic boarding school (some of which are licensed as residential treatment centers) may be the better option. The latter both allow students to continue the progress they achieved in the wilderness and learn how to integrate positive behaviors and skills into their everyday lives.
Robinovitz says that skilled educational consultants will continue to guide your family once the wilderness therapy program is complete. She believes wilderness therapy is an effective stepping-stone in the mental health recovery process.
“Wilderness therapy allows adolescents and young adults to remove all the negative influences in their lives and really focus on themselves,” she said. “Wilderness therapists and their field staff are mentoring and encouraging – they build their students up. It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to hit the ground running as they continue forward in the healing process – and in life.”
For more information about wilderness therapy programs, contact JRA Educational Consulting. Our in-depth knowledge and expertise will simplify the program selection and placement process – and reassure you that you’ve made the best choice for your child!