Short-term Wilderness Therapy Can Provide Long-Term Gains
Wilderness therapy programs are one of the most effective interventions available to troubled teens today. These short-term treatments can "jumpstart" long-term changes in teens who have been using drugs or alcohol, or acting out in defiant ways at home or school. Although most wilderness programs only last a month or so, they are effective because they are very intense. Therapists live with the teens and work with them on a twenty-four hour basis. The wilderness setting itself becomes part of the therapeutic process.
The concept of wilderness treatment is simple: trained, licensed therapists take troubled teenagers camping and hiking within a shared outdoor adventure. The teen leaves behind his usual technological distractions such as cellphones, video games, televisions and computers. Within the beauty and majesty of the wilderness setting, a teen has an opportunity to be still and quiet and to get to know himself on the most basic human level. It opens up simple pleasures such as the grandeur of the night sky, the refreshment of solid sleep after hard exercise, and the taste of simple food cooked outdoors.
Wilderness therapists have the unique opportunity to watch how their teenage clients handle everyday stress, relationships, changing group dynamics, and the responsibility of chores and self-care. Each participant must learn to cope with a variety of constantly changing weather conditions and terrain. The old ways do not work anymore. She can't slam doors and isolate herself in her room. He can't run away from home for a few days. Instead, each teen must learn to open up to other people and become a cooperative member of a group. The group becomes a metaphor for family. Whether rock-climbing or crossing waters, each person must trust and cooperate with the others. If a therapist is caring and skilled, she or he can help each teen open up and talk through problems, which can become the beginning of real psychological change. "Experiential therapy" nearly always works better for teens than "talk therapy."
Many teens spend years in conventional talk therapy before they enter a wilderness program, yet new research indicates that conventional talk therapy is ineffective with most teens. Some experts believe that teens are simply not developmentally ready to "talk through" their problems. They can finesse their way through a single hour in an office setting once a week and never open up to the therapeutic process. Their therapists never witness their clients' temper tantrums or experience the defiance that concerns parents.
New studies are showing that about half the teens who begin talk therapy drop out after a session or two. One study done in Germany showed that those teens who remain in therapy do not show significantly more improvement than those who have none whatsoever. A study done in Nagoya City Graduate School of Medical Studies in Japan showed that teens who underwent twenty-five sessions of talk therapy showed some short-term gains but did not retain them after six months. On the other hand, a five-year study at the University of Idaho indicated that most teens who participate in wilderness programs continue to improve one year after treatment.
Parents who are looking for worthwhile wilderness treatment programs for their teens have to be extremely careful about their choice. There are some terrible programs that use harsh treatment and humiliation on teens who already are carrying psychological burdens and trauma from their past. Often these programs advertise "military-style" discipline and techniques. They may damage children psychologically and there is no evidence that they are effective. In fact, a 1998 Congressional study recommended that government entities do not fund juvenile boot camps because they are ineffective.
Aaron Bacon, a talented and sensitive young high school student from Scottsdale, Arizona, died in such a program in March 1994. Deprived of food, forced to hike under difficult conditions, and made to sleep in below-zero weather with just a thin blanket for cover, Aaron grew weak and sick. His "counselors," who had neither college degrees nor licenses, accused him of "faking it." To humiliate him and "break his spirit," they made him hike without underwear or pants after he lost control of his bowels and kidney function. A simple medical procedure could have saved Aaron's life. This kind of treatment has nothing to do with wilderness therapy.
State and federal government entities are beginning to investigate and regulate both short and long-term residential treatment programs for teenagers. In the meantime, parents must investigate the safety of the program, and the training and qualifications of its counselors.
The right wilderness program can help a young person move quickly into recovery. As a teen grows confident of his ability to take care of himself under a variety of conditions, he builds new self-esteem. A good program allows a teen to form close new friendships with other teens and share the adventure of a lifetime. It is a chance to jumpstart a healthy new life without drugs or alcohol. A good program will involve the teen's family and parents, provide aftercare, and help guide the teen to a smooth transition to home, inpatient therapy or further residential treatment, if needed. There are reputable programs that produce amazing results. They are staffed by caring professionals who can and do guide teens through the wilderness and back to health.