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News & Views - Feb, 1998 Issue #50

The Value of Wilderness in 
Therapeutic Adolescent Programs 

A Statement by:

Mike Merchant, Anasazi, 602-892-7403
Mark Hobbins, Aspen, 800-283-8334 

(The following is a statement adopted by OBHIC in their executive board meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, January 9, 1998 - Lon) 

To meet the rising need for therapeutic services for adolescents, an increasing number of program administrators are turning to the great outdoors to provide the setting and enhance the impact of their therapeutic milieu. The progress of managed care has accelerated this trend, as many programs that include or feature an outdoor, experiential component produce outcomes in a fraction of the time, and cost, of traditional therapeutic models. The purpose of this essay is to highlight the inherent value created for adolescent clients and their families by programming and therapy, offered in concert, in a setting most clients would describe as “wilderness”. 

Much has been written regarding the healing factors found in the wilderness. John Muir had the following to say, “The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.” John Miles (1993) in the book Adventure Therapy: Therapeutic Applications of Adventure Programming, gave the following comprehensive summary of the benefits of wilderness:

1.)  In wilderness people experience increasing effortlessness in attending to their surroundings, which can be an antidote to the irritability and stress that comes with attention overload in daily life.

2.)  Recognition of limits regarding control of the wilderness environment can lead to reduction of the compulsion for control in other aspects of people’s lives and to a more real Ed and comfortable posture generally.

3.)  Compatibility between environmental demands and individual inclination can contribute to personal integration and a sense of union with nature, which may lead to a sense of being at one with the universe, a highly desirable spiritual condition for many people. 

4.) Wilderness can be a place where people experience competence and consequently enhancement of self- worth. Thus people can be helped to cope with the contrasting conditions of alienation and isolation. 

5.) Wilderness is a place with high potential to captivate and stimulate, to increase one’s feeling of engagement with one’s surroundings. This may improve a person’s ability to learn. ¨ The concreteness of challenges posed by wilderness experience allow delinquents who usually fail to meet abstract challenges to enjoy success and consequent enhancement of self-image and confidence.

6.) The metaphorical potential for learning in wilderness is great and may allow insight into the challenges of life back home and how they can be better managed. 

7.) The physical challenges of wilderness travel can enhance physical fitness and can also allow expression of frustration and anxiety, thereby reducing stress. 

A fairly typical adolescent program deals with a population that presents a broad range of behavioral, social, academic and psychological challenges and concerns. Students range from 13- 18 years of age, and are placed in single gender groups, or sometimes coeducational groups, of six to nine students. Each group is assigned a therapist or other clinical specialist, and a team of professional field “instructors” who guide and accompany the group through all aspects of the program. 

A typical day includes hiking or some kind of movement from one location to another, an hour or two of academic work (for programs long enough to require an academic component), group therapy or processing sessions, and the usual routines of self- maintenance, hygiene, etc. Correspondence from the outside world is generally limited to communication with parents, to keep the student’s world and focus as simple as possible. Outgoing correspondence is similarly limited, usually channeled through parents, so that communication with friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. is kept as distraction-free as possible. 

Generally, these programs are relatively austere in content, by design. Over time, a number of therapeutic interventions (CD meetings, twelve-step groups, life-steps, etc.) have been added to enhance the depth, relevancy and power for adolescent clients. However, while these programs remain highly, if not uniformly, structured, most of what occupies a student’s and a group’s day are the dynamics of the group, which is being created and monitored on-goingly. 

Stressors include the weather, native drinking water, primitive tools, isolation from familiar elements of society (cigarettes, phones, television, cars, friends, family, etc.) basic foods, and often a significant degree of physical and emotional discomfort that accompanies group membership in an unfamiliar, outdoor setting where individuals are responsible for managing their well-being. A high ratio of instructors to students ensures that supervision is keen at all times. 

The value of wilderness in this idiom is profound, and all but unavoidable. Most students come to these programs with sophisticated and effective system of manipulation in place. Field instructors, while well trained and experienced, are not immune to these strategies. As a team of professionals, without the emotional attachment of parents, they are often quicker to recognize and respond to these manipulations in an effective, therapeutic and consistent manner. 

More importantly, instructors are trained and encouraged to permit natural, logical consequences to prevail in most instances where safety, security and supervision are not compromised. Being outdoors for several weeks without respite allows each client to experience, first-hand and repeatedly, the consequences of their choices, positive, negative and otherwise. These consequences provide the value for the client and the program.

After initial resistance and denial are exposed and processed, the connections between student behaviors and choices, relative to circumstances and feelings of victim-hood and powerlessness, become clear, leaving the student with the possibility of creating transformed relationships with peers, parents and authority figures. This breaks the cycle of blaming, shaming and power struggles. 

Therapeutic wilderness programs offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional treatment setting, incorporating the advantages of around the clock supervision without institutionalization, safe outlets for physical energy and reduction of tension, and exciting adventures considered socially acceptable. (Hughes & Dudley, 1973; McNeil, 1957). 

Significant progress has been documented for participants, particularly in the areas of self-concept and locus of control. Secondarily, these short-term interventions (typically less than 90 days in duration) also provide a clearing for referring professionals, exposing the underlying issues affecting children, parents and families, so an effective, long-term strategy for aftercare can be formulated. 

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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