It used to be that wilderness therapy programs were expeditionary, and the group that formed set off and experienced the entire physical and emotional journey together. This design made for an extremely profound and rich graduation, with the parents joining for a 3 day long finale of initiatives, group and family therapy sessions, a family solo experience… and botched attempts and misunderstandings amidst the heightened emotions of reunion. This extended transition out of wilderness provided an experiential “common ground” for the family system to really practice communication skills in vivo, with the treatment team nearby to assist as wanted.
But now, unlike Outward Bound or other standard adventure programs, wilderness therapy programs utilize a rolling admission system. There are many reasons for this, but the first is that most wilderness therapy programs allow for flexible end dates. The young adult or teen enrolled does not know how to get to the end. The completion date or skills needed or learned are not exactly the same for every student. There are curriculua that the wilderness therapy programs have but it is not always a linear path to finishing; instead, it is one tangible component but many other dynamics are involved. The dynamic timetable and environment add a new variable to the adolescent's assessment & treatment. Another consequence of a perpetual group is the model leverages the most influential change agent for adolescents: rolling admission provides a peer culture maintained in great part by the group members themselves; more seasoned peers grasp and actively value many of the themes (tolerance, patience, empathy) that promote healthy change in their newest colleagues. It allows the students who have been in the program longer a valid, authentic opportunity to be a leader in a healthy way. For many of the teens who experience being a leader, it is the first time. They learn and see how their peers are behaving and adjusting and how it mirrored their own path -- empathy, a very precious and rare experience in this age group, is achieved. And this is just one of the many magical moments that being in the wilderness provides.
An important FYI, parents: most programs are prepared for your young adult or teen's arrival. Each program has a warehouse of gear and can easily outfit your child (and you, when you visit) so please do not burden yourself with worries about visiting REI or EMS. Check with the wilderness program for the checklist for admissions.