Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy Techniques & Guide

Hi, I am Mohanadas and welcome to my article on ‘Wilderness Therapy’.

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 wilderness therapy is to separate youth from negative influences by providing them an outdoor environment 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.

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.

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:

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 group’s 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.

Wilderness program is a journey of self-discovery for the clients. 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.

The new atmosphere creates a time for reflection, discovery and building new skills. The clients discover their true feelings as well as more realistic hopes and dreams.

Rather than become angry, they learn to become assertive. They ask for help and talk to people instead of hiding their feelings. They learn to listen to others and be patient. When they are alone children learn to watch the nature’s beauty and 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.

The therapeutic activities should be supervised by licensed health care professionals who have experience and training in experiential education, behaviorism and group and interpersonal therapy.

Difference between wilderness therapy and wilderness experience program:
Wilderness therapy is often confused with the broader field of wilderness experience programs (W E Ps) aimed at the personal growth of participants, such as Outward Bound and other adventure challenge programs, or reflective experience programs, such as wilderness vision questing. Wilderness therapy programs are only a small part of the larger wilderness experience program (WEP) industry, consisting of about 40 programs compared to 500 in the larger category (Friese, Hendee, & Kinziger, 1998).

Wilderness therapy includes the careful selection of appropriate clients, based on a clinical assessment, and the creation of an individual treatment plan for each participant (Davis-Berman and Berman, 1994, p. 13). Individual and group therapy techniques are applied in a wilderness setting and facilitated by qualified professionals, with formal evaluative procedures used to assess the clients' progress. Wilderness therapy utilizes expedition-based outdoor pursuits such as backpacking, educational curriculum including primitive skills such as fire making, and provides extended periods of introspective alone time for clients.

Wilderness self care and group safety are facilitated by natural consequences that help teach personal and social responsibility, and create a neutral and safe environment to apply the real and metaphoric lessons learned to the life situations with which clients are struggling

The Emergence of Wilderness Therapy :
The profound cultural changes and the unstructured home environment cause the epidemic of emotional disorder in adolescents. The media culture also bombarded the adolescents with images of sex, violence and excitement. In US 4 million out of the 26 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 have severe emotional problems to require treatment.

A study indicating that one out of twelve high school students attempted suicide in the year preceding the study. The disturbing fact is that between seventy to eighty percent of the children with clinical mental disorders may not be getting the mental services they need. Enough mental health services suitable for adolescents are not available. Out patient services are inadequate and to which adolescents are often unlikely to commit, and inpatient programs which may be overly restrictive.

Under these circumstances, wilderness therapy is helping bridge the gap between these extremes. The reputation of Wilderness Therapy Organizations are growing because of its economy and therapeutic effectiveness.

Wilderness Therapy Clients:
A participant in the wilderness therapy program may be a juvenile delinquent, a socio-pathic character or an anti-social personality.

Some literatures describes wilderness therapy clients as "males between 13 and 15 years of age with a history of abuse and neglect, a history of theft, truancy, drug use, arson, vandalism, assault, promiscuity; intensely physical behavior characterized by impulsivity, recklessness, destructiveness, and aggression; relatively weak verbal skills; and interpersonal relationships based not on mutual trust but on manipulation and exploitation.

McCord (1995) surveyed clients over a two-year period using the MMPI personality scale and identified three types of participants with the following characteristics:

(1) The Nonconformist: Likely to be chronically angry and resentful, tends to be passive, aggressive but may act out on occasion, Immature and narcissistic, defies convention through dress and behavior.

(2) The Party Animal: Often in trouble with parents and other authorities because of stereotypical delinquent behaviors: drug and alcohol abuse, sneaking out at night, early sexual experimentation, energetic and highly extroverted.

(3) Emotionally Disturbed: The group feeling the most subjective distress, including feelings of depression and despair, confusion, and dismay. Their behavior tends to be erratic, unpredictable, and highly impulsive. Poor achievement and substance abuse is common.

According to interviews with key staff in programs of wilderness, typical clients are adolescents, up to 70% male with drug and alcohol related diagnoses, and range from 14 to 18 years of age.

Contrary to what one might expect given the substantial cost of treatment, many clients come from middle-class backgrounds, with parents sometimes re-financing their homes or taking out loans to pay for treatment.

Typical Wilderness Therapy Process:
After the initial shock of the dramatic change in environment, clients begin to display behavior patterns consistent with their social history profiles. Staff routinely meet and discuss treatment strategies, such as increased responsibility for a client who lacks self esteem, or suggesting that a client who is having trouble expressing themselves bring up personal issues in group sessions.

Individual one-on-one counseling sessions are coupled with intermittent group counseling throughout the trip.
The individual counseling sessions can take place on the trail, in a client's shelter area. This neutral environment and unorthodox approach eliminates many of the barriers associated with traditional therapeutic counseling, such as intimidation by the therapist or the stigma of going to a "hospital" because they are "sick."

In a wilderness setting the therapist can be seen as a person and not as a threatening authority figure. Therapists work on establishing rapport with the client, earning their trust and doing initial assessment of the underlying issues.

Lessons learned in these impromptu "sessions" are relayed to other field staff and documented in daily and weekly treatment notes.

Groups sessions are held at least daily and range from being loosely organized, where the clients direct the flow of discussion, or extremely structured, where a reading will be presented and the group will focus on its direct meaning.

The goal of the group sessions is to provide clients an opportunity to share feelings and emotions that have begun to emerge in the course of treatment.

Groups play a valuable role in allowing students a safe and controlled environment to practice some of the new interpersonal skills they are learning and hear the stories of other clients.

The feeling of group cohesion that develops through these candid interactions is of major therapeutic value for clients, virtually all of whom feel alienated from well adjusted peers due to their dysfunctional behavior and problems.

As the trip continues, calls will be made via cell phone or radio back to base camp to communicate with therapeutic staff working directly with the client's parents.

Needless to say, parents are experiencing considerable anxiety, guilt and regret that their children are being put through this experience and often blame themselves for their children's problems.

Parents may also be in counseling and beginning to realize that they may be part of the problem and also need to change.

The field staff encourages the adolescents to write their parents and express their feelings about the past and describe changes they want to make at home to help foster a better family environment.

Parents may need help from therapists in understanding the sometimes negative and blaming tone of these letters. Thus, the parents become part of and invested in the therapeutic process and are kept aware of the progress their child is making.

As the wilderness therapy program unfolds, decisions are made as to the necessary follow-up care for the client and an aftercare treatment strategy is developed.

In some cases, three-week programs are used primarily for diagnosis and assessment, cleansing and stabilizing the client to prepare them for placement into an aftercare facility such as a boarding school, drug and alcohol treatment center or residential psychiatric facility. Depending on the seriousness of the client's issues, eight-week programs may also serve this purpose, although more clients return to families than go on to aftercare in the eight-week programs for which we have data.

A recommendation for aftercare treatment can be shocking and unexpected for the client, for in many cases they believed that all they had to do was complete the program and they would be allowed to go home and see their friends.

The therapists and wilderness guides work with the client in intense one-on-one sessions to help them see and accept that the recommended aftercare is the best move for them, given the circumstances of their past behavior. Experience confirms that in most cases, unless assessments and recommendation growing out of wilderness therapy are followed, clients may quickly revert to prior behavioral patterns of resistance.

As the wilderness program draws to a conclusion, the focus is on generalizing the lessons learned and preparing clients for their next step in the recommended continuum of care.

Clients are busy working on journal assignments, preparing word-for-word what they want to say to their parents, and completing necessary tasks such as educational curriculum or a primitive skill checklist, to assure that they will graduate on time.

After two to several weeks in the field, living and traveling in the wilderness is as second nature to clients as grabbing the remote control and turning on the television. The focus is now on their personal issues and how they plan to tell their parents, therapists, and/or the aftercare facility that they have indeed learned something, want to change for the better, and have an action plan to do so while staying clean and sober from drugs and alcohol.

If the program has worked the meeting with parents is emotional and frightening and the first step in the right direction to making better choices and improving relationships with family.

Questions to be asked before joining any WTP:
According the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps, here are a few general questions you may want to ask when interviewing a potential wilderness therapy program for your child:

So, if you feel that your children are out of your control and are negatively influenced, then don’t wait. Approach a counselor or therapist and decide to join the best wilderness therapy program.

Author Brief Bio - Mr. Mohanadas is an administrator, teacher, environmentalist and a social worker. He has established a few educational institutions. Presently working as the Head of a Middle School. Side-by-side he is pursuing “Advanced Diploma Course in Counseling and Guidance”. He is interested to work for the upliftment of the poor and the downtrodden. His main hobbies are reading and gardening.

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