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Professional Development Occurs in Wilderness Therapy too

According to the Business Dictionary (online), Professional Development is the “process of improving and increasing capabilities of staff through access to education and training opportunities in the workplace, through outside organization, or through watching others perform the job. Professional development helps build and maintain morale of staff members, and is thought to attract higher quality staff to an organization. It is also called staff development.”


Along with improving and increasing capabilities, in order to renew state and association licensures, psychotherapists and psychologists are required to submit CEUs (continuing educations units) to assure they remain up-to-date on best practices and emerging technologies. To accomplish this, therapists and psychologists attend seminars, live and online trainings and classes, and can earn CEUs from some professional conference presentations.   But what about the other agents of change in residential and wilderness therapy?  Besides experiential education from their supervisors and peers, how do field instructors and other staff become more skilled and capable?

This week in Salt Lake City, UT (home of All Kinds of Therapy) is the annual Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC); this conference welcomes all people who work with students in camp settings, college or universities, secondary schools, camps, study abroad programs, conservation corps programs, teen summer adventure programs, semester programs for high schools students and wilderness therapy programs. It is being put on by National Outdoor Leadership School ( and sponsored by NOLS, Outward Bound and my third favorite nonprofit outdoor option for students, the SCA. The core objective of the conference is “to offer an outstanding educational experience to help you mitigate the risks inherent in exploring, working, teaching, and recreating in wild places.” The WRMC  describes the conference goals:

  • “Educate wilderness practitioners on risk management and practical skills.
  • Share field and administrative techniques in risk management.
  • Influence risk management standards in the wilderness adventure and education industry
  • Provide a networking and professional development forum with today’s leaders in the field.”

I took a minute to realize that this is not the familiar gathering of colleagues, but instead, WRMC exists for a larger outdoor community that includes the therapeutic industry; training opportunities are created and run by professionals and organizations that work with students of all ages, in the wilderness.   This expertise is important because the wilderness therapy programs at the end of the day are a specialized fraction  of a larger professional field — those working with children, teens and young adults in the wilderness.   Synonymous with “wilderness” comes RISK, and WMRC seeks to develop risk-management standards for the outdoor professional programs.

In the same vein, wilderness therapy programs that are part of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, are required to become accredited by Association of Experiential Education (  OBHC programs have contracted with outside oversight for the express purpose of decreasing unnecessary risk, and to publicize their safety and treatment standards.

Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC) published that average injury rates in their programs occur at 1.12 per 1,000 participant days, compared with:

  • Backpacking 2.05
  • Downhill Skiing 3.28
  • Football Practice 19.74

This incredible decrease in risk while in a (OBHC) wilderness program supports their members claims for requiring safety and risk-prevention.  This decrease occurs despite the fact that teens and young adults in the wilderness come with increased behavioral and or emotional needs — in fact, these program stats include the students who do not meet minimum behavioral provisions for typical camps or summer adventure programming!


I want to acknowledge the wilderness therapy programs that are attending the conference.  It is good to know that colleagues (wilderness therapy programs) are sitting in their chairs in windowless conference rooms on spectacular, 70 degree fall days, out of the field and developing and renewing their risk management skills.  

Anasazi Foundation (AZ)

Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy (UT)

Elements Wilderness (UT)

Evoke Therapy Programs (UT)

Pacific Quest (HI)

Second Nature (UT)