A therapist’s office can be a healing space. Here, surrounded by books, magazines, and richly colored walls, people can discuss the issues that have held them back in the past, and with the help of the therapist, people can use these individual, indoor sessions to plan for the future.
But there is another, completely different, way to heal. It is called wilderness therapy, and it could be a key part of the therapeutic process for people dealing with entrenched, longstanding mental health issues.
Unlike other forms of therapy, which were developed long ago and have been codified with years of research, wilderness therapy is a relatively new field that has been created somewhat spontaneously. That means there is no real consensus of what the therapy entails.
For example, in a study of the field published in 2001 in The Journal of Experiential Education, the authors attempted to come up with a definitive definition by examining four published studies on the issue. Many of these studies had conflicting definitions and mandates for the therapy.
That confusion has not been entirely eradicated in the years that have followed. However, experts are a little closer to defining what the therapy is and what it is not, based on the successes they have seen and the in-depth programs they have developed.
Similarly, in a study of teenagers published in the journal Developmental Psychology, researchers found that teens with low self-esteem were more likely to deal with mental and physical health problems, low earning potential, and higher levels of criminal behavior as adults, when compared to teens with high self-esteem. Clearly, a low opinion of the self drives people to make poor choices when they reach adulthood.
Wilderness therapy is designed to provide participants with a challenge, in an environment in which they are likely to succeed. Those who have lived all of their lives in a protected and urban environment, and then thrust into the wilderness, are likely to feel overwhelmed and out of their element. These people might not think they could build a fire, set up a camp, or find food. The therapist helps, and makes the learning experience and lessons clear, so participants find that they really can do things that seem unachievable. They succeed. And with the help of the leader, these people can learn to apply that lesson to other areas of life. The therapist can make individual lessons of the wilderness universal, so it can apply to non-wilderness environments too.
In regards to how Wilderness therapy helps, Young says,
I’ve seen clients overcome high levels of fear and anxiety. They have developed confidence through facing their fears and overcoming their perceptions and emotions. I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity to witness people who said they never could do it, actually do it. Wilderness therapy is a powerful, fast, and effective modality for change and growth.
It can also provide an experience that might be hard to replicate in another setting. For example, on the surface, wilderness therapy might seem like a quest or a game. People set out on an adventure and overcome a set of challenges. That might seem like a video game. Some might believe they could get the same benefits from playing a game online.
The literature does not bear out this theory. For example, in a study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers found that people who spent a great deal of time on the Internet have low self-esteem scores. They spend time online, but they do not walk away from the activity feeling better.
Wilderness therapy is different. A clinical expert supervises the tasks, and the lessons are made explicit and clear. This is the sort of work people can truly benefit from, in a way they might not benefit from other therapy or recreational activities.
In a formal study of the efficacy of wilderness therapy, published by a researcher at Loyola University Chicago, researchers found that 70 percent of teens going through wilderness therapy were less depressed when the therapy was over. Young suggests that similar benefits could be seen in adults, as this form of therapy is appropriate for people of all ages.
Making a Choice
“Wilderness therapy is great for all ages. The courses and activities can be modified to meet the issues of all stages of life…I’ve seen significant benefits and change in people who have graciously allowed me to guide them through the process of self-discovery and personal growth.”
Families dealing with deep challenges, and who want to tackle those issues in a new way, might benefit from a program just like this. For them, getting outside of the comforts of a therapist’s office could be the best way to find a real and lasting path to healing.