Does the idea of sending your troubled or addicted teen out into the wilderness to camp, hike and learn survival skills sound appealing? If it does, you are not alone. So-called wilderness therapy for teens has been around for a while, and the idea is a popular one. It seems like a great idea. Your teen gets the chance to work out his issues with professionals, while also building character and getting out of the house and away from television, friends, the Internet, and other modern conveniences.
When your teen begins acting out and is making terrible choices, you can feel out of control. How can you even begin to help him when the situation seems so hopeless? Many parents turn to a wilderness program because it seems like a great solution. He will be removed from the stressful situation, you will get a chance to breathe, and your teen may come back changed for the better. However, before you go this route, be very, very careful. Not all wilderness therapy programs for teens are the same. Investigations have shown that some are run by counselors with inadequate training, and that too many risks are taken. Some programs have even been accused of abuse and caused the deaths of teens.
What Exactly is Wilderness Therapy?
The first issue with finding a reputable and safe program is that there is not one single definition of what makes a wilderness therapy program for teens. Most such programs describe themselves as being a type of residential treatment facility for teens that are troubled, struggling with mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse. Many also use a “tough love” style of treatment, sometimes described as boot camp or military-style treatment.
Specific to wilderness programs is that this type of treatment occurs in the outdoors. Young people are placed in a variety of settings and natural environments and in addition to receiving mental health and addiction care, they also learn wilderness skills. Many programs promote the wilderness approach as a way to improve a teen’s ability to be self-reliant, to gain confidence through learning new skills and accomplishing tasks, and to bring teens with similar issues together in a group therapeutic setting.
How Effective Is Wilderness Therapy?
There are some ways in which your teen may experience positive outcomes from a wilderness program that he may not get with more traditional therapy. For instance, review of studies of such programs shows that teens typically come away from wilderness therapy with an increase in self-confidence, assertiveness, self-understanding and a better ability to make decisions and to take control of their lives. Research also shows that these positive outcomes last over the long-term. In other words, the good experiences had at wilderness therapy seem to leave a lasting impression on participants.
What Are the Issues Of Wilderness Therapy Programs?
In spite of the above positive aspects of wilderness programs, there are several concerns. There is no evidence that indicates these programs can treat teens’ mental illnesses or prevent risky behaviors and bad choices. Because these are the reasons for the wilderness therapy, it seems as if such programs are not effective at all in helping at-risk youth.
Furthermore, there have been deaths in wilderness therapy programs. According to investigations, there were several reasons for the unnecessary deaths. The first is that the staff members are often not well-trained to work with at-risk teens. In some cases of deaths, a staff member accused a child of faking illness, when in fact he really was sick.
Investigations also showed that nutrition in several cases was inadequate. In some instances, the teens were forced to fast. Finally, some programs operated in a negligent manner, going out into the wilderness without radios or without guides who knew the area.
What To Do If You’re Interested In A Wilderness Program For Your Teen
If you think your teen could benefit from a wilderness program, make your selection very carefully. Before using wilderness therapy as a potential cure for his troubled behaviors, start with a real therapist or psychologist. Let your doctor or pediatrician guide you to a well-respected individual who can diagnose your teen, and help you make important decisions for his care. Wilderness programs can be hugely beneficial for personal growth, but should not be considered a cure for any mental illness or addiction.