What are Wilderness and Adventure-Based Therapy Programs, and How do They Differ?

Over the past two decades, numerous studies have found experiences in nature to be dramatically therapeutic in treating the human psyche. However,  utilizing the natural therapeutic atmosphere of the wild to treat mental and emotional maladies has long been used by those who already knew the many mental health-related benefits the wilderness has to offer -- by the most conservative estimates, over a century in modern America.

So, it should come to no one’s surprise that wilderness and adventure therapy-based programs have also become empirically proven to treat the mental, emotional, and behavioral issues of troubled teens. 

In the following, we will discuss wilderness and adventure therapy, how they help troubled teens and the differences between the two treatment models.

The Epidemic of Troubled Teens and Why Validated Treatment is More Important Than Ever 

Today’s teens face a litany of unprecedented and contemporary stresses that no generation before could have predicted.

Things like the vitriolic and easily spread negative and hateful posts on social media, the mainstreaming of drug and alcohol abuse -- including the opioid epidemic and omnipresent use of vaping tobacco -- and the recent quarantining of America have been especially devastating on the impressionable youths of today. 

With these ultramodern threats affecting our youth, the rise of what the behavioral youth industry refers to as “troubled teens” have also risen to new heights. Consequently, the rise of troubled youth has left thousands of parents with little choice but to seek out the help of residential treatment for their out-of-control and self-endangered teenage child. 

And while many so-called therapeutic facilities advertise their program’s ability to treat said teens effectively, many are ill-equipped, under-studied, and even negligently staffed and often make matters worse. 

In the rise of fraudulent programs (whose main priority is to capitalize on the necessities of desperate parents rather than provide long-lasting change), there is two increasingly popular and scientifically validated type of treatment that unequivocally reigns superior: wilderness and adventure-based therapy programs. 

In the following, we will discuss wilderness and adventure therapy, how they help troubled teens and the differences between the two treatment models.

Wilderness therapy 

Wilderness therapy is a completely outdoor-based residential treatment center that combines traditional residential therapy with an adventure-based treatment model. 

Wilderness therapy is especially effective in treating troubled teens - Namely, underlying mental, emotional, and behavioral issues that cause typically cause troubled teens to act on out-of-control and self-destructive behaviors. 

Regardless of a teenager’s specific behavioral and mental health-related issues, wilderness therapy successfully builds up its enrolled teenage campers' confidence, self-worth, and mental fortitude. Teenage campers learn how to circumnavigate the vast wilderness and overcome the natural obstacles and challenges that it has to offer. 

Typically spending 6-12 weeks (some programs last several months), teens learn how to build shelters, cook their own food and master primitive survival skills.

With the help, support, and trained eye of expert survivalist therapeutic professionals, these new skills and mastering of harsh environments are not only uniquely effective at boosting a teen’s confidence and self-worth, but they are also essential natural tools that allow therapeutically trained staff to connect and build trust with the campers on an individual and intimate basis.

Campers, who are more inclined to build trust and companionship with therapeutic staff, can reflect and receive treatment where other, more traditional residential treatment programs often fail.

This added availability to receive treatment is why clinical analysis has found outdoor therapy effective in treating what they call ‘treatment-resistant teens -- troubled youth whose mental, emotional, and behavioral-related issues were not able to be successfully treated at other forms of residential treatment. 

What Is Adventure Therapy?

Adventure-based therapy is similar to wilderness therapy in that it employs the natural environment of the outdoors. However, it is a much more condensed form of therapy (typically lasting between one to three weeks in duration) and highly focuses on building teamwork and leadership skills.  

Whereas campers in wilderness therapy hike, set up camp, take it down, and wake up to circumnavigate to their next camping destination, adventure therapy activities are much more defined and specific in nature. The day's activities in adventure-based therapy include challenging things like rock-climbing, rope courses, ziplining, canopy walks, and rappelling off cliffs (to name a few).    

These challenging yet undeniably adventurous activities are often manufactured and designed for teens to confront as individuals and as a team. Like wilderness therapy, this type of treatment effectively removes teens from their comfort zone, builds self-confidence, encourages self-reflection, self-development, and builds trust between others. 

Whether a teen enrolls in a wilderness or adventure-based therapy program, the specific focus will be on meeting the individual’s specific goals. A licensed counselor will develop the programs and work to ensure each teen is a good fit. Entrance into the programs is based on the specific needs of the teen and what they can gain from the program. Both programs are goal-oriented, using nature as a teaching model.