What is Adventure & Wilderness Therapy?

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Do you know what adventure therapy is? What about wilderness therapy? This lesson goes over their similarities and differences, as well as a brief history of their development in the United States.

Alternatives to Therapy

Charlie has been having a lot of trouble at school lately - up until recently his grades were good, but now they're suffering. He has withdrawn from both friends and family and seems to spend most of his time alone in his room. His parents sent him to therapy, with limited success so far. The therapist recommends that Charlie's parents look into outdoor therapies, which have had some success in treating youths with Charlie's issues.

Adventure therapy and wilderness therapy are both clinical therapies that happen outdoors. The basic idea behind them is to employ natural consequences of the challenging environment to help troubled youth. Both use licensed therapists to perform psychotherapy with their clients. Charlie's parents decide to look into both, and after some research into the topic, they soon discover the two types of therapy differ mostly in the duration of the programs and in the specific challenges that are presented to the participants.

Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy programs tend to be shorter and employ specific man-made obstacles that the groups must confront. Some common challenges are high and low ropes courses, rock climbing, rappelling, white water rafting and other challenging activities with high-perceived risk. Programs usually run for one to three weeks, and the costs per day are higher due to the specialized equipment and facilities needed.

In adventure therapy, participants undertake new and sometimes scary activities
adventure therapy

Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy typically has longer programs, with the biggest challenge being living in the wilderness for extended lengths of time. Exposure to the elements and keeping oneself relatively comfortable in these circumstances can be just as challenging for participants as hanging off a 100-foot cliff. These programs typically last six to ten weeks. Participants camp and hike in the wilderness and sometimes undertake activities like canoeing and kayaking.

Wilderness therapy can challenge participants by taking them to remote natural settings
wilderness therapy

Similarities of Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Therapy

Most programs of both types employ group activities to help troubled youths and young adults overcome a wide range of mental and emotional disorders. Kids in these programs often have behavioral issues, and many have a history of substance abuse and having suffered physical and sexual abuse. Journaling is encouraged as a way for the participants to become aware of and monitor their own moods. Both forms of therapy encourage follow-up sessions with participants to increase the likelihood of incorporating what they learn during the programs into their everyday lives.

Both types of programs use natural consequences to develop personal and group responsibility. Learning how to start a fire is necessary if the participants want a fire to warm them or provide light. Proper rock climbing techniques will be needed to get to the top of the cliff where lunch is waiting. Cooperating with the other paddler in a canoe makes it much easier and faster to get to the desired destination.

History of Outdoor Therapy in the United States

Charlie's parents look into how outdoor therapy came to be. Here's a bit of what they discovered:

Outdoor therapy has been around for nearly a century in the United States, with the first resident programs for troubled youths starting in 1930. The company Outward Bound started in Wales as a way to help young sailors survive when shipwrecked in the North Sea. Outward Bound is not a therapy program, but it is a very popular wilderness training school for outdoor enthusiasts, and it opened its first branch in the United States in 1962. Several other chapters later followed, and many other similar companies also popped up due to the proven business model. A startlingly high number of those claiming therapeutic benefits did not employ licensed therapists.

Starting in the 1970s, many 'boot camp' style programs began to form. These programs were modeled on harsh military training rather than psychotherapy principles. However, they advertised many of the same emotional/behavioral improvements and had troubled youths as part of their target audience. It was at one of these military style boot camps that a participant, Aaron Bacon, died of a treatable stomach ulcer after being denied a sleeping bag for 14 nights and food for 11 nights.

In reaction to this preventable tragedy, industry leaders met in 1994 and decided to set minimum standards for the industry. Out of that meeting, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare and Research Cooperative was formed, with the Adventure Therapy conference happening every three years to further cooperation and learning. Licensed therapists and behavioral specialists are now the norm at most treatment programs. Outward Bound still exists and is going strong, but has never advertised itself as a therapy program. The prevalence of 'boot camp' style programs claiming therapeutic benefits has decreased since 1994, but they do still exist. Charlie's parents make a note to check to make sure the camp they eventually pick employs licensed therapists.

Timeline of Wilderness and Adventure Therapy Programs

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