Wilderness Therapy is a type of primary treatment intervention. It involves safely intervening, clinically assessing and providing an environment for teens to self-examine and for treatment to begin. Because wilderness therapy takes place immersed in the outdoors, life has fewer distractions and consequences. Participants are away from the comforts and distractions of home: like peers, electronics, school, substance(s). It is also an opportunity for a teen and family to return to a less immediate (and therefore reactive) style of communication, since the primary form of communication is through letter writing (!!).
How does this all happen? A key component to this intervention is licensed therapists (master’s level & above) who are a vital piece of the process. And, the therapy uses a metaphorically and experientially-rich environment to draw home-, peer- and family-inferences for the clients. Additionally, most wilderness therapy programs embrace the Family Systems model, including family in weekly dialogues, but also into the treatment expectations. The field staff who are with the students 24/7 and rotate in and out of the field are therapeutically savvy and have more clinical training than when wilderness therapy first began.
Wilderness Therapy Programs (WTPs) provide a comprehensive clinical treatment plan and a discharge summary and recommendations. Many programs host “niche” groups, reinforced with fitting therapists’ specializations, analogous to outpatient therapist practices. Some examples are substance abuse treatment or developmentally-appropriate designed treatment, or for students with social skill deficits or diagnosed on the spectrum. Field groups are primarily single-gender for adolescents and coed for young adults (and pre-teens).
It has become common for students enrolled in wilderness treatment to have an independent psychological evaluation while enrolled. This gives an evaluation of where the student is academically, assesses any learning needs that might have been masked by other strengths or weaknesses and reveal hidden emotions or internal conflicts through psychological projective testing. Many of the diagnoses that are revealed from the standardized testing corroborate the clinical impressions and diagnosis of the clinician and field staff in the group.
It is also common for WTPs to participate in formal outcome studies to quantify and qualify the strength of the program through objective metrics.
While many participants can have complex diagnostic presentations, physiological/medical compromises or seek to self-harm, WTPs do restrict admission of some clients to ensure the safety of that participant and the group. It is important to be direct about all questions, worst case scenarios, and behaviors to the admissions contact to assure proper assessment and placement occurs prior to enrollment.