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11 Lies Around Abuse in Wilderness Therapy Programs

According to Dictionary.com, a lie is: noun, “the telling of false statements; untruthfulness.” This blog is about wilderness therapy controversy: the untruths, fake news, and misinformation that are out there about Wilderness Therapy Programs. The problem with the lies, fake news and misinformation is that although it may be interesting to read, it is never the whole story. We’ll attempt to get at more of the truth and unpack some of the misconceptions that abound online. You may have read stories about wilderness therapy abuse and controversy, leading to the question, “Is wilderness therapy abusive?” However, we hope you’ll consider the other side of the story.

1. Wilderness Therapy programs “break students down to build them back up?”
WRONG. Instead, think of wilderness therapy as the less is more approach to treatment and therapy. This means the wilderness therapy program (model) uses “Mother Nature”, the unplugged environment, to intentionally be less physically toxic (more and regular sleep, regular meals, no unauthorized substances, etc.) and elementary relationship dynamics (fewer, more consistent interactions with same peers and instructors plus group and individual insight-building dialogues). The student in the wilderness does not need to be rebuilt as a person – in fact, coercion is counterproductive for the student to internally shift. Instead, the wilderness environment slows the student down long enough to more profoundly consider decisions and goals and to recognize the nuance necessary to aim toward the person that they dreamed to be. 

2. Wilderness Therapy programs withhold food from clients.
WRONG. This is cruel. This is not happening with real wilderness therapy programs. Any wilderness therapy program that is clinically based or accredited or worth their price per day would not even entertain this concept. However, teens and young adults,not used to a healthy diet, but instead have subsisted on soda, processed foods or have a limited diet, often initially and loudly protest the whole grain, beans, rice, fresh vegetables (and some dehydrated foods, as well) that are provided while while they are in the wilderness. The diet provided by wilderness programs is calculated to include sufficient calorie count of varied food for the daily activities and in many cases, is approved by a nutritionist.

3. Wilderness Therapy programs only enroll kids who have been transported.
WRONG. Just like there are different levels of treatment for residential treatment programs, there is a continuum of care for wilderness therapy programs. Some wilderness therapy programs have a 90% enrollment via transport, others have very few involuntary admits and still others have none. This is something to ask a wilderness therapy program about as the family is investigating admission for a family member.
(Note: another option that can be considered is called assisted enrollment, which provides the student and the parents with a knowledgeable chaperone to travel with the enrollee to the program location.)

4. Wilderness therapy programs camp the whole time.
DEPENDS. Wilderness Therapy is offered in a large variety of models, including diverse activities, locations, and durations in the backcountry.

5. Academics must be on hold while my child goes to wilderness therapy.
DEPENDS. There are several wilderness programs that offer different types of academics for clients. However, academic needs are part of the assessment during the admissions/enrollment process. Some students need to take time away from the classroom, because their presenting psychological, behavioral, or emotional needs must take precedence over academics, while other students can/should incorporate coursework as part of their treatment/assessment process.

6. Wilderness Therapy costs are not covered by any insurance.
DEPENDS. Insurance doesn’t cover everything (it might cover some, or even all, depending on your insurance carrier). Here is an article about it.

7. Outcomes are unclear.
WRONG. For the last decade, wilderness therapy programs have actively developed focused research to test many aspects of their model of intervention, and continue to challenge and modify inefficiencies. The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC) is an associated group of programs under the academic supervision of the University of New Hampshire, which gathers and publishes these research papers.

8. Boot Camps ARE wilderness therapy programs, or Wilderness Therapy programs force kids into compliance.
WRONG. According to the media ratings, “if it bleeds, it leads”, and therefore, TV, radio and print media can be misleading in its bias toward dramatic stories rather than longitudinal analysis. Wilderness Therapy programs differ from military-style bootcamps primarily in the perspective of authority, and where change should initiate. In other words, does a student have the ability to modify their own behaviors or should a program force a different structure onto the child? If a student is physically safe being noncompliant, that is acceptable in a Wilderness Therapy program; disobedience or resistance is not justification for a muscular response from staff.
There were wilderness programs that hurt students. They have been regulated out of business. Recent OBHC research shows wilderness programs “average injury rates are 1.12 per 1,000 participant days compared with:
Backpacking 2.05
Downhill Skiing 3.28
Football Practice 19.74

9. Every teen goes on to a longer term residential program.
DEPENDS. All troubled teens or young adults who enroll in a wilderness therapy program do not go to aftercare. All wilderness therapists make aftercare recommendations, depending on the presenting issues, family system needs, family system wants, money or varying factors, the client and family may not be able to implement the treatment recommendations. This is a decision for the family and the client (depending on the age the client). Regardless of the reason, not every student goes to an aftercare. More often it is recommended because the structure of a residential program is so much more than most family could attain, or the family system is struggling and that instability is not healthy for the client to rejoin.

10. Gear and food is minimally acceptable.
WRONG. Students and staff use their gear (clothes, packs, sleeping gear, boots, etc.) round-the-clock in a wilderness therapy program. Therefore, the gear students are provided at the outset is much better than “minimal” and often is “high end” branded – because the initial cost works out to a better value in regards to replacement, comfort and safety.
Likewise, there is weight, health (and truth be told marketing) value in providing regular fresh, interesting and nutritious food.

11. Isn’t sending a kid to wilderness a high-price form of child abuse, neglect or even parents getting revenge on tough kids?
NOT THE WHOLE STORY. Let’s give you some historical context. There are many students who attended wilderness therapy programs in the 90’s who feel this way. There was an aspect of military rigor in early programs, with far more “wilderness” and much less therapy than programs of the last decade; this forceful approach created a dangerous groupthink against students “complaining” and, in the past, there were some incidents that endangered and harmed some students.
But the wilderness programs of the past are vastly different than the therapeutic programming offered today (with oversight and assessment by licensed clinicians & the programs are licensed by the state). The industry has evolved, because it had to and chose to. For example, in UT, the wilderness therapy programs collaborated with Utah’s Department of Human Services to create the state’s first binding guidelines. As recently as a month ago, I was at a meeting with the head of the HHS Department of Licensing, where again, the wilderness therapy program offered to assist the state in updating their regulations.

And finally, this is one of many blogs that could be written on this subject. Here are a few blogs that might assist in demystifying what wilderness therapy is NOW vs. what the media portrays it to be.

Wilderness Therapy programs have evolved, they are evolving and there is a history to the field that is not blameless. The profession has transformed from a small tribe of peers battling to live a frontier lifestyle and much more oriented toward individual psychological intervention, group awareness training and personal empowerment. Be an informed consumer and find out from professional consultants and ask the wilderness therapy program directly what their history is.

About the Author

Jenney Wilder, M.S.Ed launched All Kinds of Therapy in 2015, as the only independent online directory for the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry. With an impressive case of ADHD and her starter career in the 90’s in Silicon Valley, the dream for creating a website with features like side-by-side comparison and an integrated newsletter was born. Jenney stopped counting treatment centers and all types of schools that she has visited when she hit 500 many years ago. She was the sponsoring author of the only Economic Impact Study of the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry, which revealed the only true financial figures about this industry (in Utah). Jenney has a Masters in Special Education from Bank Street College (NY) and a Bachelors of Arts focused on History from Wheaton College (MA).

Andrew Powell, MBA, co-owner of Elements Wilderness and Elements Traverse (UT) assisted in the writing/fact-checking for this blog. Will White, Ph.D., co-owner of Summit Achievement (ME) and podcast host of ‘Demystifying Wilderness Therapy’ assisted. Ryan Walton, admissions and marketing for Redcliff Ascent Wilderness Therapy.  All three of these contributors are advertisers on the website.