Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy is an alternative approach to substance abuse treatment. It is an approach that is most commonly used to help the adolescent population, which faces unique challenges and requires treatment and care that is aware of and sensitive to their particular stage in life.

There are several different methods that are often wrapped into the term ‘Wilderness Therapy’, but there is an important distinction that should be made. Outdoor-based rehab approaches such as challenge courses, adventure-based therapy, or wilderness based experience programs are all programs that may be used interchangeably with wilderness therapy.

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What is Wilderness Therapy for Substance Abuse?

Wilderness therapy is a very special type of substance abuse and mental health treatment that takes place in the great outdoors. Patients in these programs spend the majority of their days outdoors, doing challenging and character-building activities. It is not all about playing outside, however, and it does involve traditional counseling and therapy, though the therapy would normally take place outside. One of the main defining characteristics of wilderness therapy – what separates it from other wilderness experience programs (WEPs) – is that in these programs there is a very careful selection of appropriate clients, and a creation of an individualized treatment plan for each client.

Wilderness therapy programs use many of the same evidenced and practiced methods as traditional treatment facilities. Associating wilderness therapy with programs associated with boot-camp style harsh treatment, such as Outward Bound, is not correct, according to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. Programs that are truly considered as wilderness therapy are usually staffed by people with master’s degrees and state certifications in substance abuse treatment, and many of them create individualized treatment plans for the individuals in their programs. Therapy happens at both the group level and the individual level, and family involvement is very important.

How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Wilderness Therapy

This alternative therapy teaches adolescents responsibility and self-empowerment while providing the resources for building a substance-free and happy life.

The important first step in wilderness therapy is to create an individualized treatment plan for each client. Treatment professionals at the program will meet with and assess each client, determining what they believe to be the best plan of action to help this person overcome their substance abuse, mental health, and other issues. A proper assessment ensures that clients are placed with therapists and peers who can relate to their issues.

According to the University of Idaho, there are two main models of wilderness therapy. These are:

  • Contained system: Programs that are up to three weeks long, operating in a ‘wilderness expedition model’ where clients and leaders stay together for the whole trip.
  • Continuous flow system: These programs last for up to 8 weeks. Clients are continually admitted into ongoing groups in this model, and leaders rotate in and out of the field.

Both of these programs use similar methods and activities. In addition to therapy, clients in these outdoor programs take part in expeditions, such as backpacking and white water rafting, and learn important primitive skills. Skills may include building a shelter, making a fire, and finding your way with a compass. Periods of alone time for introspection are an important part of many of the programs.

According to Keith Russell in a report from the University of Idaho, family involvement is an important aspect of wilderness therapy as well. He says that most programs keep in touch with a client’s family during the program, helping them understand the nature of the client’s problems and to understand the progress being made in treatment. They also encourage clients to communicate with their families, especially about their experience in treatment and why they were there.

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The elements of wilderness therapy teach people personal and social responsibility, and provide a safe environment in which they can apply the lessons they learn. In addition, the activities that clients engage in help them to develop a greater sense of self worth and ability, as well as an internal locus of control, according to the American Psychological Association.

A major advantage of wilderness therapy is the fact that clients are completely outside of their former environments, and are brought to a very basic, primal place where they can get to know themselves at their cores. They are far from the places where they used to use substances, and can focus on getting better in a truly formative environment.

How is Therapy Provided in a Wilderness Program Different?

Wilderness therapy programs often apply the same therapeutic methods as traditional programs, but often in a different manner. For example, counselors talk to their clients throughout the day, as they walk side by side while hiking, while they are cooking together, or during other times where they have one-on-one opportunities. In these settings, clients generally feel more at ease. Group therapy, however, often happens during lunch or around the campfire after dinner.

What are Some Benefits of Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy can improve relationship and survival skills.

Wilderness therapy is a very unique type of mental health and substance abuse treatment for adolescents. It helps adolescents to grow in healthy ways both physically and mentally, to become more independent and self-aware, and to learn how to better work with others. With this type of treatment adolescents are able to:

  • Develop a greater sense of self and of self control
  • Improve and nurture physical health, which can help mental health and help clients avoid substance abuse
  • Learn important survival skills, which also helps generate feelings of self-empowerment
  • Make new and productive relationships and connections
  • Develop healthier thinking and behavioral patterns
  • View their previous environment in a new light, thanks to client being removed from problematic environment, which fosters healing
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Does Insurance Cover Wilderness Therapy?

At this point in time, not many insurance providers do cover wilderness therapy. However, the method is becoming more and more accepted and recognized as a viable alternative to traditional mental health and substance abuse treatments, especially for young people.

According to the University of Idaho report, more programs are working towards accreditation and are working with insurance companies. To be approved, programs have to follow certain standards, including:

  • Developing an individual treatment plan for each client
  • Having supervision by professional clinical staff
  • Having regular medical check-ups by medical staff
  • Appropriate safety back-up procedures while in the wilderness such as having a radio and cell phone
  • Assuring that each client has a required number of calories each day

Wilderness therapy programs can be accredited on two levels: state and federal, with federal being tougher to get. The decision of insurance companies to cover people in these programs often depends on their accreditation.

To find out if your insurance carrier will cover all or part of the expenses associated with wilderness therapy you should contact your carrier directly. They may have certain centers they have decided to work with, or have certain standards that a program must meet in order for them to cover it.

Should I Send My Child to a Wilderness Therapy Program?

The decision to send your child to a wilderness therapy program or not can be a tough one. In making the decision, it is important to keep in mind that the stereotypes of harsh, boot camp-like programs are largely wrong when considering wilderness therapy. While those programs do exist, they are something different. You may choose to send your child to a program like that, but it would not be right to call it wilderness therapy.

Consider the financial costs, the potential benefits, and who your child is as a person. It would be beneficial to discuss this question with an adolescent specialist who has experience with wilderness therapy programs. They may be able to evaluate your child and aid in making this decision.

If your child has been through traditional rehab and treatment programs without having much success, a wilderness therapy program is a great option that should be seriously considered. In many other cases these programs can greatly help as well.

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