Wilderness therapy

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Backpackers at a wilderness therapy program

Wilderness therapy (also known as outdoor behavioral healthcare) is an adventure-based therapy treatment modality for behavior modification and interpersonal self-improvement, combining experiential education, individual and group therapy in a wilderness setting. The success of the Outward Bound outdoor education program in the 1940s inspired the approach taken by many current-day wilderness therapy programs, though some adopted a survivalist methodology.[1] Clients typically range in age from 10–17 for adolescents, and 18–28 for adults.


The New York Asylum and the San Francisco Agnew Asylum played an early role in the development of wilderness therapy, drawing upon the philosophies of Kurt Hahn. Although the therapy is often used for behavior modification by the families of young people, the aims and methods of wilderness therapy do not center on behavior modification.[citation needed]

Pioneers in the Industry[edit]

The pioneers in the field of wilderness therapy include Larry D. Olsen and Ezekiel C. Sanchez at Brigham Young University; Nelson Chase, Steven Bacon, and others at the Colorado Outward Bound School; Rocky Kimball at Santa Fe Mountain Center and others. Madolyn M. Liebing, Ph.D. (of Aspen Achievement then, and currently of Journey Wilderness) was the first clinical psychologist to integrate clinical therapy with wilderness programming.[2]


Given the proliferation of such programs, lax regulation, and absence of research setting uniform standards of care across programs, advocates have called on increased accountability to ensure programs are capable of providing care that is consistent with their marketing claims.[3]

Some programs which advertise as "wilderness therapy" are actually boot camps in a wilderness environment.[4] These can sometimes be distinguished from other wilderness therapy by such programs promising behavior modification for troubled teens, but it is hard to tell just from the ads.[5]

One of the major differences between boot camps and wilderness therapy is the underlying philosophical assumptions (wilderness therapy being driven by the philosophy of experiential education and theories of psychology and boot camps being informed by a military model). Additionally, most wilderness therapy programs have highly trained clinical staff either on the expedition or in active and ongoing consultation with the team. Boot camps may have no clinically trained staff working in the programs. Some staff members are from a correctional or military background. Nevertheless, incidents of alleged and confirmed abuse and death of youth, have been widely reported across many wilderness programs claiming to provide a less coercive environment than that of boot camps.[6]

The industry reports that, as with any type of treatment program, abusive situations have been reported and accidental deaths have taken place in some of these programs, but that compared with similar outdoor adventure activities deaths are extremely rare. These assertions cannot be independently verified due to inadequate regulation, poor monitoring, and a pattern of unreported deaths and state failure to prosecute offenders.[7][8][9][10][11]

There is also controversy over whether parents should be allowed to make their child attend a wilderness therapy program by force, as is often the case. Apart from the thousands spent on the actual program (around $500/day), some parents pay a teen escort company thousands to ensure their child gets to the program by any means necessary, without the child's consent or foreknowledge. Generally the "transfer" occurs at night, when children are disoriented. Due to the trauma and alleged harm reported by former wilderness program residents who have been forcibly escorted into placement, psychologists have heavily criticized this approach as inappropriate, and grossly inconsistent with establishing the necessary trust required for building a therapeutic relationship between youth and providers.[12]


October 2007 and April 2008, the United States Government Accountability Office convened hearings to address report of widespread and systemic abuse. In relationship with the hearing, they have issued a report about the wilderness therapy industry.[3][13] The Federal Trade Commission has published a list of questions for parents to ask when considering a wilderness program.[14]

Programs seeking additional accreditation and certification often pursue partnerships and memberships with associations such as;

After the program[edit]

Independent researchers have called into questions industry claims, criticizing the industry's use of 'bad science' due to methodological flaws in the research and ethical concerns.[15]

After a wilderness therapy program, students may return home or may be transferred to a therapeutic boarding school, young adult program or an intensive residential treatment center. Some estimate that 40% of children enrolled in wilderness programs are later sent to long-term residential behavioral care facilities.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Davis-Berman, Jennifer; Berman, Dene S. (1 January 1993). "Therapeutic wilderness programs: Issues of professionalization in an emerging field". Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 23 (2): 127–134. doi:10.1007/BF00952173. 
  2. ^ White, W. (2012). "Chapter 2: "A History of Adventure Therapy"". In Gass, M; Gillis, L.; Russell, K. Adventure Therapy: Theory, Practice, and Research. Routledge/Bruner-Mazel Press. 
  3. ^ a b GAO (2007). "Residential Treatment Programs - Concerns Regarding Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth, Statement of Gregory D. Kutz, Managing Director Forensic Audits and Special Investigations and Andy O'Connell, Assistant Director Forensic Audits and Specials Investigations, October 10" (PDF). 
  4. ^ Conner, Michael. "Wilderness Therapy Programs and Boot Camps: Is there a Difference?". www.wildernesstherapy.org. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  5. ^ Jeppson, Mayer (2008). "Characterization and Comparative Analysis of Adolescents Admitted to Therapeutic Wilderness Programs and More Traditional Treatment Settings". Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  6. ^ Smith, Christopher (1998-06-10). "The rise and fall of Steve Cartisano". High Country News. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  7. ^ "Wilderness School Counselor Charged in Death of Camper". The Oregonian. 2000. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  8. ^ "Loving Them to Death". Outside Magazine. 1995. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  9. ^ "The Problem". 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  10. ^ Szalavitz, Maia (2008). "Under the Radar". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  11. ^ "Investigation Suggests Boy's Death a Homicide". KATU. 2009. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  12. ^ Pinto, Dr Alison. "Congressional Testimony: Hearings on Residential Treatment Programs: Concerns Regarding Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth". Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  13. ^ "Congressional Hearings on Child Abuse and Deceptive Marketing by Residential Programs for Teens". Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives. 2008. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  14. ^ "FTC". 2009. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  15. ^ ASTART. "Dangers of Wilderness Programs". Retrieved 5 August 2013. 
  16. ^ Russell, Ph.D, Keith C. "Summary of Research from 1999 – 2006 and Update to 2000 Survey of Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Programs in North America Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative". ASTART. Retrieved 5 August 2013. 

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