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Wilderness therapy is an experiential program that takes place in a wilderness or remote outdoor setting. Programs provide counseling, therapy, education, leadership training and primitive living challenges that foster community and group interdependence as well as individual honesty, awareness, openness, responsibility and accountability. The terms wilderness therapy, wilderness program and outdoor behavioral health program are commonly used to mean the same thing.
The purpose of this intervention is to separate youth from negative influences and to place them in an outdoor environments that are safe, help them to discover what they have taken for granted, and to create circumstances that lead to self-examination and learning to communicate, cooperate and contribute to the well-being of group. Therapists encourage and reinforce effort and the changes that occur.
Wilderness therapy programs for youth describe and market their services as wilderness therapy. The terms wilderness therapy and wilderness program can be confusing to people investigating these intervention options. Wilderness therapy is actually a broader field than a wilderness program for youth at risk. The term wilderness therapy has two meanings; (1) introducing people to the wilderness "as the therapist" and (2) professional therapy that takes place "in the wilderness." Wilderness therapy programs consist of structured activities in which a wilderness setting and wilderness therapy are important components that distinguish these programs from adventure programs, residential treatment centers and boarding schools.
Wilderness therapy, in the purest form, is a positive growth experience where teens face natural challenges and adversities that are designed to be therapeutic in nature. Children are not merely thrown into the wilderness and made to suffer hardships. They are removed from their environment, encouraged, challenged and given every opportunity to succeed. The activities in these programs include:
- primitive living
- outdoor education
- structured daily activities
- team building
- experiential therapy
- individual therapy
- group therapy
- natural consequences for actions taken
Progress in a wilderness program is sometimes measured using a level system. Levels in programs are usually based on hard skill and soft skill performance, completion of written emotional growth assignments, peer group trust and staff recommendations. Hard skills are the physical skills necessary to contribute to a groups well-being. They may include the ability to create fire, build shelters, cook food, build a backpack and lead a hike. Soft skills include interpersonal abilities such as communication, leadership, setting an example, holding oneself accountable and self-awareness.
Wilderness therapy programs have demonstrated that children change naturally when they are removed from environments filled with negative influences and triggering events that produce self-defeating, reckless or self-destructive behavior. Teens enter a wilderness program on a journey of self-discovery. When participants become involved in routines that are logical and necessary in nature, the natural result is to develop relationships, communicate, reveal their problems, help each other, face the consequences of their behavior and discover their hidden potential. Teens discover their true feelings as well as more realistic hopes and dreams. Programs create a time for reflection, discovery and building new skills. Rather than become angry, teens learn to become assertive. Instead of hiding their feelings, they ask for help and talk to people they trust. Instead of rushing around from one meaningless activity to the next, they learn to listen to others and be patient. In the moments when they are alone watching a sunset (and not a television), children discover their true self. When they are afraid of their feelings, they learn to show courage, express their feelings in healthy manner and stop acting like victims.
In a properly run program, therapeutic activities should be supervised by licensed health care professionals who have experience and training in experiential education, behaviorism and group and interpersonal therapy. Wilderness therapy program philosophy stands in sharp contract to the approach used in residential treatment centers.
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