Helping HandWhy Wilderness?

Although the wilderness provides many unexpected opportunities for learning and growth, the natural consequences of negative and positive behavior are very predictable. Rather than trying to reward or punish students for certain behaviors, nature teaches the most powerful and life-changing lessons. Negative behaviors carry negative consequences and positive behaviors carry positive consequences. It may sound simple, but this only occurs naturally in therapeutic wilderness living.

In wilderness, distractions such as social and economic status, image and materialism are irrelevant. Nature does not treat any one person any differently than any other no matter their status or their possessions. Wilderness provides a neutral context to create a community with intention, one based on essential fundamentals of human community: trust, honor, integrity, effort, authenticity, and compassion.


People often confuse wilderness therapy with juvenile boot camps. Boot camps have their origin in the juvenile justice system and utilize military style approaches of discipline to change the student. The philosophy of wilderness therapy is one in which the staff develop relationships based on compassion and respect and utilize nature as a teacher. Boot camp programs utilize physical and psychological aggression toward students while wilderness therapy programs create therapeutic opportunities as students face the unpredictable circumstances that emerge in nature. In wilderness therapy, students must endure the natural hardship of living in the outdoors, creating a great opportunity for building confidence and self-reliance and learning to work with others. Boot camps use coercion and obtain control through the use of intimidation and manipulation and take advantage of a person's fears. Wilderness therapy and boot camps are completely different forms of working with youth and are based on entirely opposing philosophical approaches. Wilderness therapy is based on compassion and the honorable journey of self-discovery.

Eligibility Criteria and Selection Process

Students who don't receive appropriate treatment for their mental health disorders are at increased risk for poor academic performance, dropping out of school, family conflict, substance abuse, violence, and other emotional and behavioral problems. Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH), also referred to as wilderness therapy, has proven to be an effective alternative for treatment-resistant students. Wilderness programs have evolved over the last five decades, growing into a comprehensive and clinically sophisticated intervention. Most wilderness programs now offer clinical assessments, individualized treatment planning, individual and group therapy, and substance abuse education and treatment. Until recently, research examining the effectiveness of wilderness therapy programs has been limited. But in 2003, Keith Russell and the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative conducted one of the first comprehensive empirical investigations, using a large sample of students who were enrolled in multiple wilderness programs. Russell and his colleagues examined whether a students' psychological functioning improved as a result of their participation in a wilderness therapy program, and whether improvements were maintained 12 months after graduation. They found that students demonstrated significant improvements in their emotional and psychological functioning as a result of their participation in a wilderness program.

A second study conducted in 2006, using a large sample of students (774 participants) in OBH programs, focused on rates of anxiety, depression and substance use. The students reported greater therapeutic engagement and readiness for change upon graduation from the wilderness program. They also reported improvements in levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse and dependency, as well as an overall satisfaction with the therapeutic process. Improvements were maintained at the 6-month follow-up assessment.

These studies prompted further investigation. In 2006, the Center for Research, Assessment, and Treatment Effectiveness (CReATE), in collaboration with the Arkansas Institute of Developmental Science (ArK.I.D.S.) at the University of Arkansas, developed a research partnership. As an extension of Russell's earlier work, the researchers conducted a rigorous, well-controlled effectiveness study of OBH programs. Using state-of-the-art assessment, sampling and retention techniques, the research team launched a multi-site, longitudinal study of the impact of OBH programming on adolescents' overall functioning.

The study involved 190 students, ages 14 to 17, who were enrolled in three different wilderness therapy programs across the U.S. Ninety percent of the students had participated in at least one prior therapeutic experience, with 22 percent of adolescents reporting four or more prior therapists. The researchers collected data upon admission; one week after they started treatment; graduation from the wilderness therapy program; 3 months post-graduation; and 12 months post-graduation.

Upon admission, the students reported impairment in peer relationships and school performance as well as significant symptoms of ADHD, aggressive behavior, substance abuse and dependency, depression and anxiety, sleep disruption, and suicidality. A majority of the students also reported significant lifetime substance abuse:

  • 48% reported daily tobacco use
  • 47% reported weekly (or greater) alcohol use
  • 60% reported weekly (or greater) marijuana use
  • 12% reported recreational (at least once per month) use of amphetamines (not prescribed by their physician)
  • 11% reported recreational (at least once per month) use of powder cocaine
  • 20% reported binge drinking (consuming 5 or more drinks in one hour) at least five days out of the previous month
  • 40% reported smoking marijuana 10 or more days out of the past month (with 15% acknowledging daily use)
  • 38% reported using substances to manage stress
  • 15% to regulate negative emotions and 66% to escape boredom

Like Russell's early findings, teens in the effectiveness study made significant progress during treatment, and maintained these therapeutic gains for a full year.

The students demonstrated marked improvements in the following areas:


Anxiety and Depression Suicidality
Substance Abuse and Dependency
Violence Disruptive Behavior Sleep Disruption
Defiance and Oppositionality School Performance
Impulsivity Interpersonal Relationships

These results suggest that wilderness therapy programs are teaching important emotion regulation skills and that students are continuing to refine their skills after graduation. Overall findings provide considerable support for the use of wilderness therapy in treating resistant adolescents.
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