by Christie Woodfin, M.Ed., LPC, C.E.P., of Woodfin and Associates, LLC
“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
Henry David Thoreau
When parents approach Therapeutic Educational Consultants for guidance regarding their struggling adolescent or young adult, one option they are exposed to is wilderness therapy, or outdoor behavioral healthcare. It sounds counterintuitive that sending a child away from home will bring a family closer together, and it also seems punitive rather than curative to place a student in a forested area and teach him to be a creator of his environment rather than someone who feels provided for, shaped and controlled by others. But research and our personal experience have shown this approach to be a valuable first step in moving adolescents and young adults towards stronger mental health and personal responsibility.
Wilderness programs have grown up over the last several decades to address the needs of young people who are suffering from a variety of emotional difficulties during the tough passage from childhood to adulthood. Unlike earlier versions of these programs, good wilderness programs are positive, relationship-based programs which are clinically sophisticated. Unlike boot camps which attempt to break one’s spirit, wilderness programs aim to encourage young people in identifying their own strengths, developing pro-social behaviors, and realizing their own power to change their lives. Since blaming others is a typical adolescent, and sometimes young adult behavior, this latter characteristic of wilderness is a particularly valuable lesson, and nature is a particularly consistent teacher.
The salutary effects of being in the woods have deep roots in our culture. We have evidence from our earliest Biblical traditions, from Native American culture, more recently from Boy Scouts and the team building experiences of Outward Bound and NOLS, of the benefits of leaving the comforts of home and experiencing nature. In Hebrew tradition, Jacob wrestled with The Unnamable in the dessert. In the New Testament, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness for the purpose of examining himself and his purpose in life (and in so doing confronting his own temptations). Current research is highlighting the need for regular sleep patterns, aerobic exercise, and healthy diet as baseline behaviors for addressing depression, anxiety, mood dysregulation, and a host of other mental health issues. With electronics exacerbating the problems our young people are having with connecting interpersonally and living a healthy lifestyle, the efficacy of being in nature is increased all the more.
Being away from the distractions of home and the aforementioned electronics, substances, negative peers or even isolating behaviors is helpful in providing a space for contemplation. Being in the splendor of nature provides its own level of magic, and tends to trigger existential thoughts in the process. Caring field staff and highly trained MA or PhD-level-therapists, help interpret every physical obstacle into a metaphor of life for students who have habitually given up, manipulated or avoided challenges that they have faced and will face in the future.
Longer term therapeutic boarding schools — the vast majority of which have no fiduciary relationship with the wilderness programs — often request that an adolescent attend a wilderness therapy program prior to enrollment because they arrive with a sense of responsibility, a lifted mood, a positive attitude about themselves, and a readiness to further explore themselves and improve their lives. The same can be said for some young adult transitional programs. For young adults being reviewed for admissions coming straight from a wilderness therapy program, they are more likely to be admitted than a young adult coming straight from home. The Clinical team can anticipate a rocky start for the young adult who did not participate in a wilderness therapy program as there is little-to-no insight into their struggles, and without learning to individuate from their parents it can be easy to cry out and beg to return to the comfort of their parent’s home.
Only sometimes, when a young person is resistant to change and defiant with their parents, parents may choose to hire a transport service to bring the young person to the wilderness program. The two-person teams that take adolescents and young adults from home to program are highly trained in de-escalation techniques, so they work hard to align with the student and get him or her to their destination in the more pleasant and cooperative way that teens usually treat people who are not their own parents. It is more common that willing adolescents and young adults will travel to the program with a transport because either they may not be able to travel successfully on their own, their parents aren’t available to travel, or they are asking to not be alone during transit.
As for the safety of wilderness programs, these programs are regulated with few exceptions. They are careful about safety issues from performing background checks on field staff, requiring that no one staff ever be alone with a student, keeping track of how much each child is hydrating daily, having medical emergency response training, as well as being adept in working with youngsters. Some have physicians who go out into the field. The programs outfit students completely in gear that is appropriate for the climate and the activities they will be engaging in. Storing the students’ incoming clothing also assures that they will not be smuggling substances into the camp site with them. Statistics on teen mortality are far higher for teens’ accidental vehicular deaths, drug over doses, suicide, football, biking and skate-board injuries – the injuries they incur at home – than for wilderness related injuries. The University of New Hampshire has done extensive research on this aspect of wilderness therapy.
Therapeutic Educational Consultants, who act as advisors to parents, visit the programs frequently, and speak with the therapist weekly when we have one of our clients enrolled. We are careful about placing each client in a program and with a therapist that is appropriate for their particular need, whether it is a grief issue, a struggle with understanding his adoption or his parents divorce, school anxiety, depression, promiscuity or substance abuse.
Parents choose to send their students to wilderness programs when they have exhausted their local resources and outpatient therapy hasn’t worked. They are feeling ineffectual in helping their child or in pulling them out of their depression or isolation. They see the gap between their child’s development and that of their peers widening. They choose this option as the next step on the road to restoring their teenager to wholeness. It is our experience that an overwhelming majority of students emerge from wilderness feeling healthy and better equipped to deal with the challenges of adolescent and young adult life.