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News & Views - Feb, 1998 Issue #50


Keith C. Russell, Research Staff
Wilderness Research Center
Moscow, Idaho 
(208) 885-2269

Wilderness Research Center

Founded in 1972 and coordinated by the University of Idaho’s College of Forestry, Wildlife, and Range Sciences, the Wilderness research Center (WRC) is unique among institutions of higher learning. Dr. John C. Hendee became the director of the WRC in 1994 to lead a renewed focus of research on the use of wilderness for recreation, personal growth, therapy and education, and demonstrate the value of university research programs to wilderness. Growing evidence suggests that the use of wilderness for personal growth, education, and therapy is increasing and is now a widespread activity in wilderness and comparable areas. 

A recent study conducted by the Wilderness Research Center at the University of Idaho identified nearly 700 wilderness experience programs existing nation-wide. Coupled with this rise of wilderness programs is the emergence of wilderness therapy, an innovative therapeutic intervention being recognized by mental health professionals as a viable alternative to helping adolescents overcome emotional, adjustment, drug and/or alcohol, and psychological problems. The rise in these programs suggest two trends (1) an increase in the number of emotional, psychological, and behavioral disorders among adolescents, and (2) a need to move beyond traditional services which cannot meet the growing demands being placed on them. 

The Scope of the Problem

Epidemiological studies on the prevalence of emotional disorders in the United States suggest that 4 million of the 26 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 have emotional problems severe enough to require treatment. An important index of psychopathology among adolescents, suicide, illustrates well the severity of their needs. A Center for Disease Control study found that one of every 12 high school students tried killing themselves in the year preceding the study. The rate of completed adolescent suicides has tripled in the last 30 years, and is now the third leading cause of death in this age group. 

These disturbing statistics are illuminated by the estimate that between 70% to 80% of the children with clinical mental disorders may not be getting the mental services they need. Not enough services are available, and the services that are available, are not always suited for adolescents’ unique needs. There is a lack of middle ground between outpatient services, that can be inadequate, and inpatient programs, that can be overly restrictive. Youth are often disinclined to commit to and remain in outpatient counseling. Several factors can be involved in their resistance including: (1) a feeling of stigmatization; (2) resentment in being the identified patient in the family; (3) resistance to the restrictions of office- room therapy; (4) geographic location; (5) costs, and; (6) waiting lists (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1994). The problems and limitations described can be addressed by providing a counseling milieu utilizing a wilderness experience. In the text Wilderness Therapy: Foundations Theory and Research, Davis-Berman & Berman (1994), both with extensive backgrounds as mental health professionals, make the first attempt at trying to define and operationalize “wilderness therapy.” In their book, they talk of the need to move beyond traditional services, and how the lack of services available “may lead some adolescents to be placed in more restrictive settings than required.” 

Wilderness Therapy

The wilderness therapy process involves the use of traditional therapy techniques, especially those for group therapy, in out- of-doors settings, utilizing outdoor adventure pursuits and activities to enhance personal growth and help adolescents come to grips with problem behaviors. Wilderness therapy is moving beyond traditional Outward Bound models of adventure programming which are designed to challenge and push adolescents into confronting their problem behaviors through adventure activities such as rock climbing, hiking and rafting. 

By taking a more “clinical” approach, wilderness therapy programs are addressing dysfunctional behavior incorporating the whole family in the treatment process. The mental health profession has begun to notice the benefits of this unique approach. By involving the family in preparation and follow-up activities, wilderness therapy is not only helping the adolescent come to grips with dysfunctional behavior, but helping the family cope with these issues and re-integrate the adolescent back into the family to restore healthy functioning. The intervention relies on constructs from structural family therapy and research on healthy family processes which are designed to capitalize on the power and efficacy of wilderness therapy. 

Wilderness interventions using this family therapy approach provides families the opportunity to assume new roles and respond in ways that expand their typical patterns of interaction, while “reframing” the problem in the process. Because problems can be situated within the context of trends and appear to have a life of their own, they often go unnoticed and can become more influential over time. Adolescents and their families seem oblivious to the progressive nature of their co-evolution around the problem definition. By “externalizing” the problem, family members can begin to describe their lives and relationships in the family outside the context of the problem and explore and develop appropriate behaviors separate from the problem. 

By taking youth away from their culture into wilderness, they are leaving behind an environment which perpetuates their “problem.” Once removed from this context, they are able to reflect on their lives and behavior, and see their “problems” from an objective perspective. They are allowed to explore new ways of being freed from the context of their problematic environments from which they came. By helping families to rid themselves of the guilt associated with past behavior, they are able to begin taking necessary steps to restore healthy family functioning. 

Research and Information

Wilderness therapy, as documented by extensive research, has been shown to be effective in promoting positive behavioral change in youth-at-risk. Benefits of these programs include increases in self confidence, enhanced self-concept and self efficacy, and a strengthened internal locus of control among participants. Research has also reported a reduction in the rate and seriousness of recidivism in delinquent behavior including number of arrests and drug and alcohol abuse. 

Mental health providers are taking notice of these outcomes and embracing such interventions as a viable alternative to traditional mental health services. Clients and their families, insurance companies and referral agencies who routinely compare treatment services for adolescents have also taken notice, leading to growth in the number of wilderness therapy programs and clients served. For anyone interested in research on wilderness therapy program efficacy or other related information, please contact me. 

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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