Wilderness Therapy Under Debate




Professional therapists are marveling over the increasing use of Wilderness Therapy to treat problematic behaviors.

Research shows that wilderness therapy is a promising new treatment method for adolescents to promote the changes in behavior necessary for these individuals to become fully functional members of society.

Wilderness therapy is a method of treatment that involves rehabilitative, outdoor, adventure-based approaches in conjunction with the therapeutic process to enhance personal and interpersonal growth.

According to Keith Russell, a researcher heavily involved with Wilderness Therapy, this type of therapy is of varied length and involves a group process and a series of challenges designed to create changes in problematic behaviors.

These approaches are often used in young individuals who are not responsive to traditional treatment methods.

For example, an adolescent diagnosed with conduct disorder, a childhood disorder associated with hostility and disobediance, who is not responsive to common multisystematic approaches might find himself seeking a wilderness-based treatment facility as a last resort to avoid serious trouble resulting from his destructive behaviors.

At a wilderness therapy program, troubled individuals take part in outdoor activities, such as backpacking, while being taught basic survival skills. Clients, who are carefully selected based on clinical assessment, receive individual treatment plans and take part in individual and group therapy sessions facilitated by professionals.

Through the therapeutic process within wilderness therapy, clients are taught interpersonal communication skills, drug and alcohol awareness, and various coping mechanisms that enable clients to develop the desire to change past behaviors.

Although the interventions in the programs are often shorter than most behavioral therapies, several pieces of literature show that the physically and emotionally demanding group experiences among wilderness therapy programs cause these programs to have more potential in successful changes in the undesirable behaviors. In particular, these programs have been used increasingly to treat problematic juveniles. These individuals tend to come from dysfunctional households and face serious difficulties in home life, school, and interpersonal relationships. Wilderness therapy programs aim to treat problematic behaviors in order to decrease the negative effects that may be seen later in life.

The efficacy of wilderness therapy is still under some debate. Some researchers believe that these short, intensive programs will be more effective in facilitating change in young individuals when compared with other shorter programs.

A recent study found that wilderness therapy led to an increase in self-esteem and ego strength. Other research claims that wilderness therapy programs lead to the development of positive self-perceptions, less defensiveness, and more socially accepting attitudes after treatment.

In 2003, a national non-profit organization, Drug Strategies, that studies and promotes more effective approaches to the nation’s drug problems, released a publication that surveyed and assessed adolescent drug treatment programs across the country and identified nine key elements of effective adolescent drug treatment.

Specifically, Drug Strategies said that this wilderness therapy program managed to engage and retain clients by providing “strong therapeutic alliances with most participants by having the field staff live with teens throughout the three weeks of a trek.”

There have been several researchers who claim that wilderness therapy is not effective. Wilderness therapy, similar to boot camp with much more therapeutic processes, is sometimes seen that forcing young individuals with conduct disorder to attend wilderness camps may aggravate their behavior problems.

Additionally, even if changes in behavior occur during the Wilderness Therapy experience, the initial disruptions in behavior might resurface after the therapeutic process ends.

The necessity for follow-up therapy is one of the many ethical considerations expressed by professionals skeptical of wilderness therapy.

Also among concerns among professionals, is the role of the therapist in wilderness therapy programs. Wilderness therapy programs allow patients to see therapists in a way that is extremely different than typical treatment methods.

As a result, the client’s perception of therapy might be skewed. Because professional boundaries are essential in most therapeutic settings, the client-therapist relationship associated with wilderness therapy programs might become problematic. Wilderness therapists often express more lenient boundaries.

Another ethical concern is the continuation of care among clients in wilderness therapy programs. Some research suggests that there is a slight deterioration in the skills learned in wilderness therapy programs after the program has ended. In a 2005 study, Russell found that between 80 and 85% of youth who seek wilderness therapy go on to seek outpatient therapy after returning home.

Although there have been numerous ethical concerns dealing with wilderness therapy, much research suggests the program to be an effective treatment for individuals with behavioral problems, and so the prospects of Wilderness Therapy success remain promising.


Email Kelly at: 


1 Comment

  1. Having used wilderness prigrams with a variety of dually diagnosed adolescents i can attest to of this treatment approach. Families and clinicians do however need to approach the investment with reasonable expectations. In my opinion, the goal of the treatment is to interrupt a negative cycle for a young person and provide them with healthy challenges and very achievable goals. Some.of these kids have experienced some many failures and subsequent feelings of rejection and disapproval that they expect only continuing failure for themselves. Wilderness therapy provides a corrective experience for many of them, allows them to experience a healthier version of themselves, and develop insights that may otherwise have taken years to develop (if at all). Even though the young person returns to his or her environment and may resume some degree of the same activities, they can now access a mature experience of themselves to rebound toward change. They have a successful experiwnce outside of their destructive peer culture and this is priceless. (That being said, i wish it were much more affordable to families).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.