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Interview with Will White

Last year I received a copy of Dr. Will White’s Book, Stories from the Field: A History of Wilderness Therapy. This book describes the history of what is now called wilderness therapy and concludes with most of the current parent choice/private-pay wilderness therapy programs providing their unique histories and models.

Will, thanks for doing this interview. For those that do not know Will, he has a doctorate in leadership and a masters in social work and is a licensed therapist and Alcohol and Drug Counselor in Maine and New Hampshire. He co-founded Summit Achievement in Maine over 20 years ago and serves as the CEO of the organization.

I loved your book — perhaps most because I loved learning the themes, and the history of treatment via wilderness provided context into what and how wilderness therapy came about. I was a history major so I love to learn how we get to today and what have we learned or not learned in some cases. With your book, readers learn about the roots of wilderness therapy from Boy Scouts of America to Camp Ramapo to Outward Bound to the BYU course 480. At the end of the day, wilderness therapy programs enroll students with behavioral and emotional issues that are preventing them from moving forward in their own lives.…


What brought you to write Stories from the Field: A History of Wilderness Therapy?

A really short answer would be to help educate the field, and others interested in it, by creating and collecting narratives of its long evolution.

However, the long answer is an interesting story in itself. As a long time participant in the Wilderness Therapy field, I had heard the web of oral histories recounted at conferences and workshops, tales of the various social and political inflections, the pioneers and personalities, and the proud and turbulent evolution of wilderness therapy. It seemed a shame, and an error, that no one had provided a comprehensive history of the field, so I decided to take on the task of writing a history of the field for my doctoral dissertation (at the spry age of 50). My dissertation was titled “Stories from the Elders: Chronicles and Narratives from the Early Years of Wilderness Therapy.

My second round of publishing about the history of the field was when I was asked by leading researchers, Drs. Mike Gass, Lee Gillis, and Keith Russell to contribute a history chapter for their book, Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice. With that, I compressed much of my doctoral research into a summation of the evolution of the field. After the book was published and my dissertation completed, I presented my research at numerous conferences. During those presentations, I received feedback from attendees about what I missed or misrepresented.

Alongside the history, I was encouraged to include modern day programs. I was interested in updating my research, but I was conflicted, as many modern-day wilderness therapy programs were founded by contemporaries, friends, and/or competitors. I could tell the history of wilderness therapy but the current state of the field required I provide a philosophically impartial perspective. Another challenge was that the only histories available were marketing websites and those were generally limited in their scope. This lack of objective content tempered my enthusiasm.

Then, one weekend I was camping with my family and my epiphany came; it was when we were all sitting around a campfire at the end of the day and my kids were telling stories. The stories they were telling were stories from their summer adventures. My kids’ stories were theirs and not mine. It was during that campfire story-telling session that I decided to ask founders and current leaders in wilderness programs to write their stories about their program’s founding and evolution – from their viewpoint. To help motivate people to tell their stories, I asked them to write and donate their stories for the good of the field and without the expectation of any financial remuneration. I received 26 chapters, stories from the owners and administrators of today’s field, people weaved into a history of wilderness therapy for the good of the field with all profits going to research. I am grateful to all of the contributors to the book and their programs; without them the book would be limited in its scope to the past and not about the present day.


Training was a theme throughout the book and the importance of it — a book, “is not a substitute for training, education, or experience nor will reading it certify or license you to do anything,” page 45. How do you think training has changed since wilderness therapy began?

The quote above comes from the book Exploring the Islands of Healing: New Perspectives on Adventure Based Counseling (2002) and the purpose was to emphasize the importance of specific training to work in the field of Adventure or Wilderness Therapy.

As the field continues to evolve, training has been a big part of that change. If we look back in the early 1920s, in the earliest therapeutic summer camp model found at Camp Ramapo, the staff were trained to work with campers with mental health issues; they always had mental health professionals at the facility but Camp Ramapo did not venture out on long expeditions. As the field moved to a more expeditionary model in the 1960s, with little to no mental health professionals out in the field for support (or even “on call”, as mobile phones did not exist), the field staff had to rely on all of the soft skills that they could muster – and for which programs had to structure and train to keep their participants safe.

The field has swung back and forth between the importance of hard skills and soft skills. I think most people would say that both hard and soft skills are of equal importance for practitioners. As more research is completed, we are able to be informed as to what the best practices are in the field and train people to meet those standards.

The field has now evolved to the point that there are now undergraduate and graduate degree programs, in both Adventure and Wilderness Therapy. I suspect there will be more movement towards certifications and degrees to the point that some day, field staff may have to have some sort of certification to even work in the field.


What surprised me is that it was not until 1975 when the soft skills (therapeutic skills) were focused upon, rather than the hard skills like Outward Bound? (page 49)

I believe soft skills have always been part of wilderness therapy, but it was not highly prioritized until the 1970s, as many programs were caught up in trying to toughen participants up to be independent through the experience while not acknowledging emotional safety. The above reference was in relation to Rocky Kimball at the Sante Fe Mountain Center who, as a former Outward Bound instructor turned psychologist, wanted to include more mental health professionals on trips to increase their focus on emotional safety. Another example is Woodswomen, Inc., founded in 1977 by Judith Neimi, Denise Mitten and Elizabeth Barnard, a program that really focused on the relational aspects of the field which is now common but was overlooked or neglected in some eras during the evolution of the field.


Children died in wilderness therapy programs in the 90’s and you wrote about this terrible part of the history, so it can be revealed about what is different today. As William Shakespeare forewarned, “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (The Merchant of Venice). However, to this day, children dying in wilderness therapy programs is what newspapers and online articles write about. What is the good that has come from these tragedies?

Wilderness therapy, like all fields that work with individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as working with adolescents, has its share of tragic stories because the population is risky. In the book, one will read that tragedies have occurred throughout the field’s long history. Yet the tragedies are the exception and not the rule. Healthy businesses and communities learn from their tragedies and grow from them. That is why you see modern day Wilderness Therapy organizations staffed with a multidisciplinary team of licensed professionals that include individuals with university degrees in adventure therapy as well as physicians, social workers, psychologists, substance abuse counselors and nurses. Organizations are learning from the past and are constantly trying to innovate by integrating technology to keep participants safer as well as providing quality treatment. The field in general does not do enough to promote the positive, but that is beginning to change and I feel research is a big part of that.


Recognizing that teens and young adults attending wilderness therapy have behavioral, emotional struggles, trauma histories, and substance use and so much more, it is surprising that longitudinal, comprehensive research reveals a significant decrease in injury incident rates for wilderness therapy, even compared to “typical” physical activities

[NOTE: Wilderness Therapy programs involved in outcomes research show average injury rates are 1.12 per 1,000 participant days, compared with: Backpacking 2.05 or Downhill Skiing 3.28 or Football Practice 19.74]  

Why do you think that is?

The data about lower incident rates than many other activities with adolescents and young adults is illuminated in the chapter about the history of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center. For example, it shows that injuries during high school football games are over 328 times more common than injuries experienced in Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council wilderness therapy programs. My theory is that there are less incidents on wilderness programs because organizations are highly staffed (industry standard is 1 staff: 4 students) with trained professionals. In general, those in the field are risk-averse and will move quickly to contain unnecessary risk, including transfer a student out of the field if they feel there are continuing risks for an incident. That said, programs are working in the wilderness with a risky population. Programs work hard all the time to mitigate risk, yet the essence of wilderness and people is that they cannot be controlled 100%.


By researching, and compiling the history of the field, what does it tell you about where the field is today? What do you think this history means for its future?

The field is in a growth cycle similar to what we have seen in the early 1900s when there was “Tent Therapy” at most psychiatric hospitals or in the 1940s and “Therapeutic Summer Camps” began operating all over the country. There was a rise and contraction of “Tent Therapy” and “Therapeutic Summer Camps.” Like all cycles, it will grow to a certain size and then either fade or transition to the next form. Isn’t that what wilderness teaches us? Everything that doesn’t evolve gets left behind.

What is driving the current growth is the increasing demands for innovative programs that can assist young people with mental health and substance abuse issues and a growing economy. The field of wilderness therapy is tied to the U.S. economy. We can see that after 2008 (“the Great Recession”) when many older wilderness therapy programs closed in the United States. That will likely happen again as the economy ebbs and flows.

I think those who have been in the field a long time recognize the cyclical nature of it and are prepared for its cycles by keeping relatively small and focusing on quality niche programming provided by skilled staff, while remaining open to adapt when necessary. We can see the cycles in many fields (or industries) and those with quality programming and quality staff are most likely going to stand the test of time.


Why didn’t you include boot camps in your history? Even though Boot Camps are the opposite approach (military approach) vs. wilderness therapy programs (licensed therapists).

I did not include boot camps in the book because most of those type of programs do not operate in wilderness areas nor do they consider themselves wilderness therapy programs. I will leave the history of boot camps to those who work in that field. With that said, I think wilderness therapy sometimes gets lumped together with boot camps because the field has been influenced by members of the military and the military itself. That is not completely off the mark; the roots of the field’s history were strongly influenced by many involved in the armed forces. From Boy Scouting to Outward Bound, those two early organizations originated through direct appeal to help toughen up future soldiers and sailors. Those two extremely successful organizations had a strong influence on the field of wilderness therapy.

I also think that some members of society feel that taking young people out into the wilderness is punitive. The closest thing people can equate to primitive living is a (military) boot camp. This is far from the truth but I can see how people who are not that knowledgable about the field, can equate the two or lump them together.


This makes sense to me. I only wish that the media would see it the same way. By documenting the history of the field, you have established a grander perspective of what and how this treatment milieu developed. With this perspective, where are we now? What would you like to add?

On one hand I believe the field is as healthy as it has ever been. For example, you see more wilderness therapy programs joining and being involved in the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC) and this is a relatively new movement. OBHC was a small organization for many years and in the last half dozen years it has grown exponentially as I think organizations and leaders in the field see the value of being part of OBHC and working together for the good of the field.  At OBHC meetings I see competing programs working together in a collaborative manner to develop best practices, contribute to research and become accredited by the Association for Experiential Education. This is all good for the field.

If your readers want to know about the tremendous variation in programming for teens and young adults, all OBHC member programs contributed chapters about their histories and models for the book.

On the other hand I have some concerns about the field as it used to be an alternative to traditional residential mental health treatment and it is now becoming more manualized and standardized. As the field moves more towards becoming more insurance driven and standardized it may lose some of its heart, soul and innovation.