What is Wilderness Therapy?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 January 2020
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Wilderness therapy is a form of intensive therapy that is conducted in the form of a controlled environment. The therapy takes place in a location that is removed from the rigors of daily life, usually a remote or rural setting. Various forms of the therapy take place at campsites or retreats where modern amenities are intentionally kept at a minimum. Usually, wilderness therapy programs are designed to help troubled youth who have developed severe behavioral problems to regain control of their lives and actions.

It is important to note that there are a number of different types of programs for young people that are classified at wilderness therapy. Not all of them are structured in the same manner or use the same approaches to achieve the desired goals of the program. Many of the programs seek to utilize tools such as open communication, group dynamics, and education to help bring about a change in attitude and demeanor among the youth sent to the programs.


Other programs that are loosely referred to as wilderness therapy may utilize other methods such as a rigorous schedule of activities resembling a military boot camp. Youth attending this type of wilderness therapy camp may live a very regimented life that includes getting up at a specific time, being responsible for specific functions around the camp, and eating meals on a tight schedule. Periods of vigorous physical exercise are often part of the daily routine, and a general atmosphere of discipline permeates the entire process. While some experts do not believe this type of program can be rightly classified as wilderness therapy, others consider this approach to be both practical and acceptable.

One of the defining characteristics of any true wilderness therapy program is the presence of clinically trained mental health professionals. Counselors are made available to help get to the root causes for the behavioral problems manifested by the young people enrolled in the program, and help the youth come up with more productive and responsible ways to deal with the issues that affect their view of the world. Often, the goal is to equip the young person with knowledge and social skills that can be used when he or she returns to the outside world, making it possible to avoid past mistakes and begin to build a life that will be rewarding and responsible.

Because many of the nature wilderness therapy programs in the United States and other places around the world are privately owned operations, there is not always a clear process of regulation. Parents and legal guardians should thoroughly investigate any program that claims to be wilderness therapy before enrolling young people into the therapy. Special care should be made to ensure the goals of the program are aimed at helping youth develop strong coping skills that will serve them well in life, and not simply a quick fix solution that intimidates young people into avoiding certain activities due to fear of reprisal.



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