Wilderness therapy incorporates evidence-based approaches in an outdoor setting and is typically utilized with at-risk youth and young adults.1,2 However, it may be a good fit for many other individuals, including entire families.1,3 During a session, clients are offered helpful tools for coping with their mental health struggles in a natural environment.
What Is Wilderness Therapy?
Wilderness therapy is an experiential therapy that made its debut in the 1900s and has grown in popularity over the past two decades.1,2 Generally, sessions are performed in wilderness or other outdoor settings. During these expeditions, behavioral and mental health issues are addressed.3
Wilderness therapy is a treatment modality that falls under the umbrella of adventure-based therapy. Individuals navigate various expeditions that are free of negative outside influences that are typically present within familial and societal settings.3 Aspects of individual psychotherapy, family therapy, or group therapy may be included based on the individual needs.5
For a program to be considered wilderness therapy, it must be offered by a licensed state agency and administered by a mental health professional. Additionally, it must be possible to individualize a session according to a person’s needs and have a method in place to test for efficacy in treatment.4 It’s important to note that seeking wilderness therapy as a standalone treatment for serious psychological issues is not recommended. It is not designed to be a primary approach for all mental health conditions.2
Types of Wilderness Therapy
There are a number of wilderness therapy approaches that provide a unique experience for participants.3 Thorough assessments are completed by clinical staff prior to an individual engaging in wilderness therapy.1 For example, a person’s treatment plan may be determined based on the setting desired, therapy modalities, and the duration of treatment.1 Most wilderness therapy programs involve overnight stays in an outdoor setting, spanning from one week to several weeks or months.5 It also includes the teaching of primitive wilderness skills in order to boost a person’s endurance and adaptability.3
Techniques used by wilderness therapists include activities, such as:2,5
- Problem-solving games
- Goal setting
- High adventure activities
- Green therapies
- Survival skills training, first aid
- Role play and drama
- Practical skills development
- Health and nutrition education
- Map courses and navigation
- Parents taking part in activities alongside their children
- Support for parents to develop parental skills
- Family therapy sessions
What Can Wilderness Therapy Help With?
Wilderness therapy may help treat a variety of mental health diagnoses and symptoms. The professionals on staff will impact the types of treatments and specialties that may be offered within a program. Various age groups may benefit from wilderness therapy, but it is typically offered to at-risk youth and young adults.3 Adolescent groups are often single-gendered while most young-adult programs are co-ed.1 They are usually open-groups rather than closed-groups, meaning that individuals may join the group at any time, even if others are graduating.1
Wilderness therapy may help treat mental health disorders and symptoms, such as:1,5
- Behavioral difficulties
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD)
- Substance use disorder (SUD)
- Self-esteem issues
- Poor social skills
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Benefits of Wilderness Therapy
There are many proven benefits of nature on one’s mental health. Specifically, a number of these rewards may be reaped during a typical wilderness therapy session.
Benefits of wilderness therapy include:2,3,5
- Increased self-confidence
- Improved familial relationships
- Development of healthy coping mechanisms
- Improved self-identity and self-awareness
- Improved emotion regulation skills
- Improved communication
- Better conflict management skills
- Better approaches to achieving goals
Does Wilderness Therapy Work?
Overall, research supports the efficacy of wilderness therapy. However, findings are mixed and there are certain criticisms of its methods.2 Studies suggest that the severity of mental health symptoms in adolescents may be reduced when wilderness therapy is provided in conjunction with traditional forms of psychotherapy.2 In particular, issues revolving delinquency appeared to be positively affected.2 Additionally, improvements in behavioral difficulties, self-esteem, and social skills have been noted.5
As mentioned, there are criticisms regarding this treatment approach. Accessibility can be an issue for those who cannot afford wilderness therapy. Moreover, populations with certain physical, cognitive, and social demands may not be able to participate. This may include the elderly, young children, and those with severe or chronic mental health issues.2,3 The effectiveness of wilderness therapy has also been questioned due to programs, like teenage boot camps, falsely advertising themselves as being wilderness therapy.3
Allegations of abuse, deaths, and lawsuits involving wilderness therapy have resulted in further controversy.6 Thus, it is imperative to do your research before considering wilderness therapy. You should only engage in a program that is state-licensed, employed with therapists who have the necessary credentials for treating your individual needs.1
Wilderness Therapy Practices to Try
While wilderness therapy requires licensed practitioners to be performed, there are a few ways you can utilize its techniques yourself. For example, try engaging in outdoor family activities with the intention to build communication skills together. It is always suggested to first consult with a mental health professional before attempting to implement any therapeutic activities yourself.
Wilderness therapy activities you can try on your own include:
- Walking or biking trails
- High rope courses
How to Find a Wilderness Program
You should consider a number of factors before deciding on a wilderness program, including its cost, length, the licensure of practitioners, and services provided.3 A good first step is to speak directly with a mental health professional to determine if this approach is a good fit for you or your family. Be sure to choose a program that is safe. In general, choosing a therapist can be difficult, but online therapist directories can be helpful.
Cost of Wilderness Therapy
Wilderness therapy tends to be a “private pay” method of therapy.1 Cost may be anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 for a few months, and upwards of $50,000 per stay.1,6 Some programs cost $500 per day and last between one and two months.3 In some cases, health insurance may cover wilderness therapy treatment when it is used as a part of a formal rehab plan.2
Wilderness therapy may not be for everyone, but can be a great addition to traditional forms of talk therapy for many individuals. If you feel like you or your loved ones’ mental health concerns have not been addressed with traditional treatment approaches, talking with a therapist who specializes in wilderness therapy may be a good option to explore.
For Further Reading
- Adventure Therapy: How It Works, Cost, & What to Expect
- Adventure and Wilderness Therapy / Youth Endowment Fund
- Therapy Gone Wild / APA