I have cried around many campfires, and I have seen many cry around a campfire. It is hard to explain a job that involves living outside for more than half of the year in freezing cold temperatures and thunderstorms, but when I explain the transformation someone experiences out in the wilderness, it just makes sense.
Yes, I am talking about the hot button topic of wilderness therapy.
There are programs that lack accountability and individuals within those programs who have abused clients. There is no “but” after that statement.
I personally benefited from attending a wilderness therapy program, and I have worked for a wilderness therapy program. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of nature to help with mental health and addiction, but there is no room in this industry for abuse and neglect.
It’s difficult, however, to write about shutting down all of these programs knowing that it sparked my sobriety and drive to help others — and while knowing that so many others have had the same experiences. That is why change in the wilderness industry needs to happen in order to continue its existence.
First, there needs to be a national set of standards to ensure accredited programs are the only programs allowed to run. In one 2019 study, researchers found that patients in outdoor behavioral health care had 424% better treatment outcomes than those who sought no treatment or traditional forms of treatment, including inpatient care, outpatient care and detox programs. But out of the dozens of programs available in the United States, only 14 are accredited.
Second, the transportation system needs to be overhauled. When I first started working in wilderness therapy, I was horrified to hear stories of teenagers being taken in the middle of the night by adults that their parents had hired. I later learned of some of the reasons this might happen, like if a parent feels hopeless or fearful that their teenager would harm themself if asked to seek treatment.
Sometimes, transportation is the only solution to ensuring someone can safely make it to treatment. With that being said, transportation should never be used to avoid talking about treatment or to get out of “dealing” with their children. Transport companies need to be regulated and accredited, just like the wilderness programs themselves, to ensure safe and humane treatment of clients.
Finally, teenage mental health — particularly addiction — is a family disease. There is no way to ensure success back home if the family is not working on themselves, as well. Programs need to provide family work while their teenager is in wilderness therapy to help their successful reintegration back home.
One of the most common things I heard while working in wilderness therapy was, “My parents are the ones who need to be out here, not me!” While that might not have been wrong, the feasibility with work and life responsibilities of a parent leaving their home for more than a week or two seems impossible. That being said, programs still need to ensure that the full family system is being evaluated and treated, not just the child.
No treatment program is perfect. However, a 2004 study conducted by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council found that 83% of participants in wilderness therapy reported doing better two years after treatment, while 81% believed wilderness therapy to be effective. Even with these incredible results, there can be no “but” after any statement regarding abuse and neglect.
In an industry that relies on the desperation of parents and the emotional turmoil of teenagers, there can be no room for mistreatment. No matter how effective wilderness therapy is, no results can justify a traumatized teenager.
If you are a parent looking for a solution to your teenager’s addiction, depression, anxiety or mental health challenges, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Wilderness therapy worked for me, and I know countless others in recovery who it worked for, as well.
I have also read the articles and worked with the teenagers for whom wilderness therapy created more trauma and resentment toward their parents, toward therapy and toward themselves. There is no way to guarantee success but, at a minimum, we need to regulate programs that will — at the very least — do no harm and — at the very best — utilize the healing power of nature to give more teenagers and families hope.
Will Rattigan attended a wilderness treatment back in North Carolina in 2013 and recently worked at a wilderness treatment center in Utah. He is studying to become a licensed clinical social worker.
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