Last updated: 05/1/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Wilderness therapy can be an extremely beneficial recovery option for many individuals, especially many adolescents who have been abusing drugs and/or alcohol. This program could be a great choice for your child’s treatment, depending on their specific needs and whether or not wilderness therapy programs will be able to suit them.
What Is Wilderness Therapy?
Wilderness therapy is a type of treatment program for addiction normally focused on helping adolescents recover from substance use disorders. It can also be used to treat other behavioral issues in teens and is sometimes called outdoor behavioral healthcare.
Though older individuals may benefit from this type of treatment as well, these programs are usually focused on wilderness therapy for troubled youth.
In these programs, adolescents spend much of their time outdoors and learn different, primitive skills such as how to start a fire. They also engage in other, outdoor activities such as hiking and challenge courses. These programs are very different from traditional recovery programs for addiction because much of the treatment takes place outdoors, and though traditional therapy is still part of the program, it is often executed in a less conventional way.
For example, these programs may utilize cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most effective programs for adolescent addiction treatment.
Instead of this type of treatment occurring in a rehab center, though, patients receive treatment outdoors. Other types of therapy often utilized in outdoor behavioral treatment include:
- Animal therapy
- Motivational interviewing
- Dialectical behavioral therapy
Why Does Wilderness Therapy for Adolescents Work?
This program is often helpful in the recovery of adolescent addicts for a number of reasons.
1. Being out in nature can be extremely beneficial to recovery.
It’s good for the mind and the body, causing the individual to work hard during the day and to have strong feeling of self-satisfaction at night. In addition, it removes the adolescent from their day-to-day life that is full of distractions and is also likely to contain reminders of their drug abuse.
2. The program teaches adolescent individuals how to become more self-sufficient.
Teens in wilderness therapy learn to do things they may have never thought they were capable of, like completing an outdoor obstacle course. They develop the skills, and the drive to pick up new, healthier habits and interests outdoors.
3. Conventional therapy options are mixed into Wilderness Therapy.
Individuals in wilderness therapy programs still receive therapeutic sessions, but these usually take place while they are hiking with their group leader or making dinner. This will often allow the individual to feel less inhibited when discussing their feelings, as many adolescents become uncomfortable in a traditional therapeutic setting.
Group therapy is also an option during wilderness therapy for troubled youth. This often occurs after meals while sitting around a campfire or in other, more relaxed atmospheres. It allows youth to gain empathy and understanding for others, while on the pathway to recovery.
4. Individualized therapy plans are created for youth in Wilderness Therapy.
Many programs that provide wilderness therapy for adolescents also take into account the individuality of each of their patients. The leaders of the program will work with each teen to create an individualized therapy plan so every patient is treated according to the best method for their needs.
5. It provides safe and successful recovery options.
Wilderness therapy does actually work and can be extremely beneficial to certain patients and especially to many adolescent individuals. When considering what type of treatment program will be best for your child, this can often be a very suitable option for a safe recovery.
Wilderness Therapy Statistics
Many people do not understand that wilderness therapy programs are actually extremely beneficial and are based on real scientific outcomes. When most people think of this type of program, they envision harsh, survivalist curriculums designed to scare kids straight. But the truth is, wilderness therapy for troubled youth is not like this. Instead, it offers a non-traditional option for recovery that is both safe and effective.
Some of the statistics associated with the success of wilderness therapy for adolescents can be found here.
- A study published in 2004 , which surveyed 88 families and children who had participated in wilderness therapy several months after treatment had ended, found that:
- Improvement was experienced in 83% of the children surveyed; with 58% said they were doing very well.
- Most surveyed (81%) rated the method of outdoor behavioral healthcare as effective, with 27% abstaining entirely since their treatment
- Approximately 47% attended aftercare in the form of an outpatient center.
All in all, wilderness therapy can be a very beneficial tool for certain individuals and can also be extremely helpful in the recovery of adolescents struggling with substance abuse issues. But how can you be certain that this type of treatment is right for the needs of your child?
Find out if Wilderness Therapy Is Right for Your Child
Wilderness therapy programs offer a number of treatment options you will not be able to find in a more traditional program for recovery. If this seems like something your teen would be interested in, it could be that this type of program would greatly benefit your child.
1. Does your child feel the need to escape from everyday life and triggers?
If you believe getting your child away from it all will be helpful for their recovery, this is a good choice for their safe and effective recovery. As stated previously, being out in nature can positively affect our mental and physical states. In addition, your child will be miles away from the people and things that remind you of your desire to use substances.
Wilderness therapy for troubled youth takes the option to use drugs out of the equation because they will be so far away from the places where they would be able to get these substances.
2. Does your child have trouble making friends or connecting with people?
This could also make this type of program a beneficial option for your teen. Most individuals who abuse substances struggle with relationships. In wilderness therapy for adolescents, your child will meet other kids who have experienced similar issues. Your child will face daily challenges with other children, and learn to work hard as a team, which will cause them to forge strong bonds and potentially even begin to make strong friendships.
3. Do you believe your child will have difficulty or feel uncomfortable with traditional therapy or treatment? Has your child tried this option in the past and not had success?
Some people, especially adolescents, struggle with traditional therapy models because they do not feel comfortable opening up. In wilderness therapy programs, the group leaders are often individuals with master’s degrees or doctorates in psychology. However, because they do not push adolescents to discuss their feelings in a traditional therapeutic setting, patients actually open up more readily in many cases.
4. Does your child struggle with self-esteem issues?
Many teens that struggle with substance abuse also deal with serious self-esteem problems. Being in this type of treatment environment, though, often helps many teens with these issues.
Learning to become self-sufficient out in the wild can improve a young adult’s self-esteem immensely. In addition, the time spent in wilderness therapy for troubled youth can actually help teens become stronger mentally and physically, which also improves feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.
5. Is your child also dealing with depression, anxiety, or other issues that may be exacerbating their substance abuse?
Wilderness therapy can also help your teen work through these issues.
660 individuals who attended wilderness therapy for troubled youth were surveyed at the beginning and end of their treatment for additional issues associated with addiction.
Many children admit to feeling depressed at the time of admission to a Wilderness program. These programs are intended to help combat not only addiction issues, but also mental health issues that may be the root cause of their dependency.
6. Do you want to ensure that your child has the time and the ability to self-reflect during their recovery?
Though traditional therapy programs also make time for self-reflection, it can be even easier for your teen to reflect on the events of their day (and on their life in general) after spending a long day working hard out in nature.
The stronger feelings of self-awareness your teen will gain while in a wilderness therapy program will allow them to better reflect on themselves and their experiences, a tool they will likely gain without even realizing it at first.
7. Do you want your teen to be able to develop better coping skills for the future?
Learning to problem solve out in nature allows many teens to become less uncomfortable with the idea of their day-to-day difficulties. In addition, this type of program teaches teens how to better manage problems like stress, which can help them avoid turning to drugs after they leave the program. Your teen will leave Wilderness therapy as a more well rounded individual.
For all these reasons and more, wilderness therapy for adolescents could be extremely beneficial for your child. It is important to consider the options available for recovery, however, and to choose the one that works best for your family.
What Are the Different Options for Recovery?
There are many different options for addiction treatment. Because every patient is different, it is important to consider which is best for your loved one when seeking treatment.
- Inpatient or residential rehab: Inpatient care is a type of treatment for addiction that takes place in a controlled environment. Patients stay at the facility 24/7 and loved ones can often visit. This type of program is very traditional and more intensive than most other treatment types.
- Outpatient rehab: Outpatient care is often a suitable aftercare option following inpatient treatment. However, some individuals choose to attend it in lieu of this type of program. Patients attend scheduled meetings and therapy sessions at the facility but are able to return home afterward.
- Nontraditional rehab: One example of nontraditional rehab is wilderness therapy. There are many other programs that exist and provide different types of care beyond the traditional inpatient or outpatient options, and these can be especially beneficial for adolescents.
- A study cited by Ohio State University found wilderness therapy for adolescents decreased family conflict by 47.5 percent.
- Individuals who attended the program also saw a 52 percent increase in positive psychosocial development and a 22.5 percent decrease in the prevalence of depression.
However, it is important to remember that all treatment programs for substance abuse, especially for adolescents, should have several things in common.
- The use of traditional treatment methods, most importantly behavioral therapy
- An individualized treatment program for every patient
- Trained medical professionals who understand the needs of addicted individuals and especially of addicted teens
- A comfortable, caring atmosphere where patients can feel safe
Is Wilderness Therapy the Best Choice For My Teen?
No one can decide for you if this type of treatment will be right for your child. However, after you consider the options you have, it may be a good choice if you are looking for a nontraditional recovery program that offers a different approach to addiction treatment. After all, treatment should be tailored to the needs of the patient.
Wilderness therapy programs can be highly beneficial to the recovery of adolescent addicts, as shown in the statistics above. It can also help individuals uncover and work through problematic issues associated with addiction like low self-esteem and depression. But the choice of which type of treatment program will best suit the needs of your teen should be made between you and your child.