Wilderness Therapy for Addiction Recovery
Outdoor Therapy Programs for Teens
Wilderness therapy is a unique approach for treating addiction among adolescents, adults, and families. By facing challenging situations in nature, as well as connecting with others and participating in intensive therapy, participants are able to address addiction while also learning life skills, taking responsibility, and building self-esteem.
What Is Wilderness Therapy?
Wilderness therapy, also known as adventure-based therapy or wilderness experience programs, is a treatment approach that exposes people to therapeutic activities and interventions in nature. 1
Wilderness therapy programs were originally intended for adolescents struggling with substance abuse and other problematic behaviors. These programs offered alternatives to inpatient or residential programs for teens with a variety of issues. Wilderness therapy programs have recently expanded to offer treatment programs for adults and families because adolescents may return to problematic behaviors at home if family dynamics are not also addressed.
What Programs Include
Some common components of wilderness therapy programs include: 2
- Immersion in the wilderness for a specified period of time with peers and professionals, such as psychologists, therapists, and/or counselors.
- Intensive individual, group, and/or family therapy sessions.
- Education on basic life skills and an opportunity to practice skills.
- Addressing problematic behaviors through therapeutic interventions.
- Development of an aftercare plan to continue gains after wilderness therapy has been completed.
What They Treat
Wilderness therapy programs may treat a variety of disorders, including: 3
- Substance abuse and other addictive behaviors.
- Bipolar disorder.
- Disruptive behaviors and delinquency.
- Conduct disorder.
- Oppositional defiant disorder.
- Developmental disabilities.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Personality disorders.
- Physical health problems such as cancer.
Who Can Benefit?
Not everyone is suitable for wilderness therapy. People experiencing withdrawal symptoms from drugs or alcohol or those considering suicide may be put at risk by this type of therapy.An ethical wilderness therapy program will have a mental health professional conduct a thorough assessment to ensure that a person is a good fit for this approach before he or she commits to treatment. 2
Additionally, good wilderness therapy programs should tailor treatment to each person by developing an individualized treatment plan.
How Do Outdoor Therapy Programs Work?
Outdoor wilderness therapy programs may differ in their specific approaches and interventions. But all include an opportunity to live in the wilderness for a period of time and to develop life and survival skills. They also address and attempt to change problematic emotions and behaviors. Wilderness therapy programs work by exposing people to challenges, having them confront their fears, and developing trust through the group process.
Wilderness therapy programs offer an opportunity to gain basic life and survival skills by having people take part in the following outdoor activities:
- Maintaining direction and focus while hiking through the wilderness.
- Building a fire.
- Setting up tents and preparing a campsite.
- Cooking meals.
- Maintaining group cohesion.
Length of Treatment
Wilderness therapy programs may be as short as a weekend expedition or they may last for several weeks. Family programs are typically shorter due to the difficulty of managing multiple schedules. Programs for adolescents may last one week or more, depending on the specific program.
Many wilderness therapy programs are coed and offer trips for males and females together. But some are tailored specifically to one gender.
Wilderness therapy offers a unique approach to therapy because the recovering user and the therapist are participating in a nature experience together. Therapy sessions may be held as a group or one-on-one, and they may even be conducted while hiking. Therapy is often conducted by a mental health professional such as a psychologist, counselor, or therapist.
Wilderness therapy programs often integrate various types of therapy approaches, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on helping people identify and replace their negative thoughts with alternative, more positive thoughts that will lead to better outcomes. CBT offers the opportunity to change a person’s pattern of thinking.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) helps clients become more effective in relationships with others, tolerate painful and difficult situations, manage negative emotions, and use mindfulness skills to become more aware of the present moment.
- Family therapy may be the focus of or a component of wilderness therapy. Family therapy seeks to identify unhealthy patterns and dynamics in families, improve communication skills, and help create a healthier living environment.
- Motivational interviewing (MI) is an effective approach for addictions and seeks to increase motivation for change. MI uses non-confrontational techniques and is particularly beneficial for people who are not yet ready to give up unhealthy habits.
- Equine therapy with horses or therapy with other animals may help increase awareness of emotions and help with self-expression.
In addition to therapy, some wilderness programs for adolescents offer tutoring and education to prevent teens from falling behind in school.
People struggling with addiction issues may need to attend detox programs prior to starting a wilderness therapy program. Those who are dependent on drugs or alcohol and who exhibit withdrawal symptoms may be at risk without medical monitoring. Withdrawal symptoms should be stabilized before beginning a wilderness program.
Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs
Wilderness therapy programs may offer recovering users and their families specific benefits, including: 1
- Sense of accomplishment: Completing a wilderness therapy program reminds people that they can be successful with enough persistence and effort. This sense of accomplishment may help increase motivation to reach future goals.
- Improved physical health: Wilderness therapy programs may lead to improvements in diet and exercise.
- Improved self-perception: Participants may experience increased wellbeing and self-esteem through therapy, connecting with others, and achieving significant accomplishments.
- Increased self-awareness and responsibility: Some people report increased insight into how their choices impact their thoughts, feelings, and relationships with others. This increased self-awareness allows them to reflect on their negative behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, and to consider alternative ways of behaving.
- Development of problem-solving skills: Learning to survive in the wilderness requires participants to face difficult challenges and develop skills to manage stressful situations. These problem-solving skills can then be transferred to stressors in the real world.
- Increased coping skills: Participants learn and practice new coping skills to manage stress through therapy sessions, peer interactions, and facing challenges.
- Better relationships with others: Participating in wilderness therapy requires teamwork and cooperation. People have to learn healthy ways of communicating with peers to succeed. These skills can then be transferred to relationships with other people such as family members, friends, and teachers when wilderness therapy is completed.
Wilderness Addiction Treatment Effectiveness
Research has examined the effectiveness of wilderness therapy programs to treat a variety of disorders over the last several decades, including addiction.
- Research has found that adolescents who participate in wilderness therapy report benefits from physical exercise, forming trusting relationships with counselors and peers, taking time for self-reflection, and participating in a challenging and structured process. 2
- Adolescents with substance abuse issues benefit from wilderness therapy by learning new coping skills and ways to prevent relapse. 4
- Family members of adolescents who have participated in wilderness therapy also experience improved relationships and report better family communication when wilderness therapy is complete. 5
Like outpatient and inpatient treatment programs, wilderness therapy programs begin the recovery process. But lasting change continues long after the program ends. Aftercare planning is an important final step during wilderness therapy to ensure that participants are able to maintain gains.
Aftercare options may include:
- Engaging in ongoing outpatient addiction therapy.
- Continuing psychotherapy with a mental health professional.
- Attending recovery meetings such as 12-step groups or SMART Recovery.
Researching a Program
In the past, concerns arose over the safety and ethics of wilderness therapy programs. Some programs offered “boot camp” interventions and treated clients poorly.
Today, many programs are state-licensed or accredited by outside agencies, and this requires that they meet specific standards. The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council is one such organization that accredits wilderness therapy programs throughout the United States. It ensures that programs are held to high standards of competence.
You may also consider looking into the qualifications and training of staff members to ensure that they are qualified to treat addiction and other mental health disorders.
Find a Wilderness Therapy Program
If you would like assistance finding a wilderness therapy program, please call our helpline at . Our representatives can confirm your insurance coverage over the phone.
. Russell, K. C. (2001). What is wilderness therapy? Journal of Experiential Education 24(2), 70-79.
. Russell, K. C., and Phillips-Miller, D. (2002). Perspectives on the wilderness therapy process and its relation to outcome. Child and Youth Care Forum 31(6), 415-437.
. Annerstedt, M., and Währborg, P. (2011). Nature-assisted therapy: Systematic review of controlled and observational studies. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health 39, 371-388.
. Bettmann, J. E., Russell, K. C., and Parry, K. J. (2013). How substance abuse recovery skills, readiness to change and symptom reduction impact change processes in wilderness therapy participants. Journal of Child and Family Studies 22(8), 1039-1050.
. Harper, N., and Cooley, R. (2007). Parental reports of adolescent and family well-being following a wilderness therapy intervention: An exploratory look at systemic change. The Journal of Experiential Education 29(3), 393-396