In a matter of months, 16-year-old “David” had gone from being a successful student to spending 12 or more hours per day playing video games. He lost his scholarship to a private school, then dropped out of school altogether, refusing to leave the couch, even to bathe.
He also stopped communicating with his family. His parents, with whom David had previously been affectionate and close, were afraid he was shutting down.
Diagnosed with depression, David saw four different mental health professionals without making much progress. What finally reached David was wilderness therapy, a unique treatment model that brings clients to natural settings for intensive therapy with a counselor (or other mental health professional) and peer group.
David spent 12 weeks in a program in the high desert plateaus of southern Utah. Although initially resistant to the program, the wilderness setting and peer group eventually prompted him to become social again and work through his struggles. David and his parents exchanged letters while he was away, helping to repair the relationship.
Now back at home, David is again close with his family and flourishing at school. In fact, he was recently elected student body president, says Steven DeMille, an American Counseling Association member who was David’s counselor at Redcliff Ascent, a wilderness therapy program in Utah.
In a post-therapy case study, DeMille, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who is a clinician and director of research at Redcliff Ascent, wrote, “The wilderness provided David with a challenging, straightforward and neutral environment to reflect on old behaviors and try out new options. … David realized that he no longer needed to defeat the structure through disengagement to meet his personal needs. He could meet his needs through following rules and meeting social and family expectations.”
Redcliff Ascent is one of a growing number of programs across the United States that specialize in wilderness therapy. Although models vary from program to program, the majority involve taking groups of clients — most commonly youth or young adults — out into the wilderness for an extended period of time. Participants, including program staff, typically sleep outside, pitch tents, hike and cook food over an open fire.
Therapy occurs in both group and one-on-one sessions. But it also takes place “in the moment,” such as when a client’s anxiety flares when struggling to start a fire or self-doubt kicks in when tasked with leading a hike by compass, says Sean Roberts, a clinical mental health counselor who has worked in wilderness therapy for almost a decade.
“The wilderness is such a powerful intervention because it’s unpredictable,” adds Sabrina Marie Hadeed, an ACA member and licensed professional counselor at Second Nature Cascades, a wilderness therapy program in Oregon.
In one case, a client of Hadeed’s was struggling to set up the tarp for her sleep shelter during an unexpected rainstorm. Frustrated to the point of tears, she gave up and sat down in the rain. The situation served as a chance for Hadeed to talk with the client about coping when circumstances were out of her control and how to ask others for help, both of which were hard for the young woman.
“There’s equal balance in the wilderness of challenge and nurturing, structure and safety, and really learning what’s inside and outside of your control,” says Hadeed, who is finishing her doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Oregon State University. “It’s challenging [for clients] to lean into the discomfort of their difficult feelings rather than turn from them. As long as it’s safe, we’ll encourage them to do that [and they] will increase tolerance for those feelings. In a traditional setting, you meet with a therapist for an hour, even if it’s twice a week. You leave that space and you don’t have to practice what you’ve practiced in the session. In the wilderness, you have to practice all the time — how to give feedback, express frustration, interact with peers.”
Simply put, wilderness therapy is evidence-based therapy — including traditional methods such as Adlerian therapy, cognitive behavior therapy and others — that is done outdoors, say Roberts and DeMille, who presented together on the topic at the 2014 ACA Conference & Expo in Honolulu.
The wilderness therapy model is intensive in many ways, from the group dynamics and 24/7 interaction with program staff to the often breathtaking scenery and natural challenges confronting the clients. Practitioners in the field say wilderness therapy has been proved to have positive outcomes for clients, from better management of behavioral disorders, anxiety, addictions and other struggles to boosts in self-confidence and overall health, including nutrition and sleep patterns.
“The therapy is much more challenging than anything physical,” says Roberts, an ACA member who just began a position as clinical director at Cascade Crest Transitions, a residential program for young adults in Bend, Oregon. “It creates a very powerful milieu. … It’s an incredibly rich and fertile environment for therapy [and] a strengths-based approach to healing.”
Outdoor behavioral health care
DeMille prefers to use the term outdoor behavioral health care rather than wilderness therapy because he says the latter is a nebulous, unregulated term that many nonprofessionals use. He recommends that counselors looking to refer clients search for programs that adhere to the outdoor behavioral health care model, which is a regulated industry with set standards (see sidebar on the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council below).
“There are going to be programs out there that say they’re wilderness therapy, but that’s not necessarily outdoor behavioral health care,” DeMille says.
Outdoor behavioral health care is light years away from the “boot camp” image that many people still associate with wilderness therapy programs, where participants are “broken down” in order to build them back up, Roberts and DeMille say. In fact, outdoor behavioral health care is the opposite, says DeMille.
Regulated programs, including all of the programs for which the counselors interviewed for this article work, have field guides with small groups of clients around the clock. Although the guides are not counselors or mental health professionals, they are given extensive training in wilderness living and serve as adult mentors to clients. Client groups range in size from a few individuals to a dozen people.
Clients meet regularly with a counselor or other licensed mental health professional from the program’s support staff. These counselors work closely with the field guides to get feedback and check in on the client’s progress concerning the treatment plan or goals.
Counselors lead group and individual therapy sessions, work on outreach to families and provide case management. As a clinical director, Roberts says he will also join a group at least once per session for an overnight trip outdoors. He remains on call whenever he isn’t with the group.
“There’s so much more to work with than when I’ve done outpatient work and so many more ways to gather [client] data,” Roberts says.
Clients enter outdoor behavioral health care programs for a number of reasons, including treatment for a variety of mental health diagnoses, behavioral problems, substance abuse issues, problems with school or relationships and trauma recovery. Client stays are usually open-ended; they leave the program only when they are ready, Roberts says. An average stay at DeMille’s program is 70 days, whereas the average at Hadeed’s program is eight to 10 weeks. Programs have rolling admissions, with clients joining and leaving the group intermittently.
Parents of youth clients stay involved with the program and visit their sons or daughters in the wilderness, even sleeping overnight. Hadeed’s program maintains a website for clients’ families where they can post photos and updates and exchange messages while their teenager is out in the wilderness.
Prior to discharge, counselors spend a significant amount of time preparing clients for re-entry into home settings or social situations that previously caused them distress or with which they had difficulties. This process includes working to hone the client’s decision-making and communication skills, relapse-prevention strategies and other coping methods, DeMille says.
In addition, outdoor behavioral health care therapists often work with school staff, counselors and other helping professionals in the client’s hometown to ease the transition. “We do put a lot of energy into figuring out what will set them up for success as they leave,” Roberts says.
The right fit
Outdoor behavioral health care is often effective for clients who are “stuck or deteriorating in treatment” or not responding to traditional therapy methods, according to DeMille. It can also be a good fit for those who drop out of traditional talk therapy or end up hospitalized after a suicide attempt or overdose.
The approach is also effective, says Roberts, with clients who are struggling with a “failure to launch”: young adults who are underperforming in life or career, including failing or being kicked out of school or college.
Roberts, who is finishing his doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Oregon State University, previously worked at Second Nature Entrada, an outdoor behavioral health care program in southern Utah, near Zion National Park. He notes that many of his clients have “been through tons of talk therapy” but struggled to put what they learned into practice. Many have legal records, family systems issues, depression, a history of suicide attempts or struggles with self-medication via substance abuse. These clients are often wrestling with dysfunctional relationships, destructive life patterns or an internalized sense of hopelessness, he says.
“They need an opportunity to unplug from that [life] and course correct — shift the trajectory of where they’re heading … stabilize and gain some tools to increase their confidence,” Roberts says.
Counselors interviewed for this article agreed that outdoor behavioral health care can be a good fit for clients who struggle with:
- Low self-esteem
- Poor body image
- Emotional, mood or anxiety disorders
- Developmental disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Behavioral disorders
- Substance abuse
- Poor school performance
- Being disruptive, uncooperative or withdrawn
- Having poor boundary issues with peers (such as crush obsessions or sexting)
Conversely, outdoor behavioral health care is not recommended for clients with:
- Severe eating disorders
- Severe forms of autism
- Learning disabilities that cause them to become oversensitized easily
- Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia
- Medical conditions that necessitate being near a hospital (for example, diabetes)
Being comfortable with the outdoors is not a client prerequisite, Hadeed emphasizes. In fact, taking clients out of their comfort zones — and away from their cell phones, friends and favorite TV shows — is often a factor in their healing and progress.
Hadeed says counselors considering whether to refer a client to an outdoor behavioral health care program should first speak with program staff to determine if the client might be a good fit. Conversely, if a counselor is working with a client who has already gone through an outdoor behavioral health care program, the counselor shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to program staff to collaborate, she says.
“Whether it has been one year or five years, the experience will still be with [the wilderness therapist], and they can talk through what works [for that client],” Hadeed says. “That collaborative piece is really important.”
A journey of self-discovery
Gil Hallows, executive director of Legacy Outdoor Adventures in Utah and chair of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, calls the outdoor behavioral health care model a “modern-day rite of passage.” He draws comparisons with the Australian aboriginal “walkabout” and similar rites in other traditional cultures in which adolescents spend time in the wilderness to learn, grow and discover their strengths, returning to society as adults.
Similarly, outdoor behavioral health care is an “individualized journey of self-discovery,” says Hallows, who has worked in the field for two decades.
Hallows and the counselors interviewed for this article agree that numerous factors contribute to the modality’s success with clients, including:
Time away: Outdoor behavioral health care clients spend weeks away from home. In doing so, they are removed from the people, circumstances and other factors that may be contributing to their destructive behaviors and struggles with mental health, including friends, addictive substances and technology.
Hallows refers to this as “the great slowing” because clients have time to think more clearly and reflect on their life away from distractions. “It takes a young person away from everything they’re accustomed to manipulating,” from their own families to video games, he says.
In addition to long hikes, journaling time and other opportunities for self-reflection, some outdoor behavioral health care programs include a “solo” experience, in which clients spend time alone for introspection.
The time away from school cliques, name-brand clothes, cell phones and other familiarities often leads to breakthroughs in self-identity for clients, Hadeed says. In one case, a client discovered that her sense of humor and knack for performing could be a strength and a way to process and communicate her feelings rather than a means of getting her in trouble, as it had in the past.
Time away challenges clients to ask those important questions of identity, Hadeed says. “[It] highlights the strengths, gifts and natural positive qualities they have that they weren’t aware of because of the distractions of daily life, including technology,” she says.
Learning by doing: Part of the outdoor behavioral health care experience for clients is learning to take care of their own equipment, cook meals together and share in other chores such as gathering wood and building fires.
In most cases, clients are learning to do things they’ve never done before. Moments when clients struggle or get frustrated turn into opportunities for in-the-moment encouragement and guidance from program staff.
Roberts says this process leads to empowerment and taps into a host of skills that will carry over into everyday life, including dealing with frustration, sticking with a task, learning to ask for help and engaging in long-term planning.
“It’s almost unavoidable — clients will learn skills, [including] self-confidence, problem-solving, self-care and task accomplishment,” Hallows says. “It’s extremely fulfilling and rewarding to observe the transformation that takes place in a young person when they discover who they are and what they are capable of doing while on a wilderness journey.”
Roberts says he will suggest tasks for clients based on issues they are dealing with in their therapy sessions. He works with the field guides to set up interventions, such as the job of leading a hike by compass, to see how clients respond to specific challenges.
Roberts says he might also suggest that a client who is weighed down by emotional baggage (such as anger or a destructive behavior) take a walk while carrying a rock, a stick or some other object. Afterward, he will talk with the client about the metaphor of carrying something around with us constantly, why that is a challenge and how it can be overcome.
Participants in outdoor behavioral health care often gain new perspective, DeMille says. “Things that you have taken for granted [meals, for example], all of a sudden you have to work for,” he says. “It develops a sense of mastery, competency. They grow in confidence and competencies.”
The model also lends itself to learning what is and isn’t in your control, Hadeed says. “You can’t control the rain, the wind or the weather, but you have control over whether you’re going to put on a jacket or build a fire, and that can be translated to a family setting,” she says. “You can’t control what mood your dad is in when he comes home, but you can control your response to that mood.”
Group dynamic: In most cases, clients in outdoor behavioral health care programs join a group of people they’ve never met before. Over time, the client bonds with group members and staff leaders, Hallows says.
“Sharing a common experience with a group of peers and staff, it lends itself to establishing a tight peer group that holds each other accountable,” he says. “They learn to identify and express emotion, become honest with themselves. And if they’re not, they’ll be called out by their peers.”
Clients work through anxieties and other issues alongside one another, learning as they go. The shared experience with people who are trying to overcome similar struggles is the opposite of the isolation of one-on-one therapy in an office, DeMille points out.
“The group dynamic allows [clients] to work on problems in conjunction with peers in their group,” he says.
The around-the-clock guidance from field staff is also a factor, agree DeMille and Hallows. Clients benefit from seeing adult mentor figures working alongside them, completing hikes, setting up camp
and sharing meals, chores and other tasks. These field staff work closely with the program counselors to make sure that clients are on the right track and meeting treatment goals.
Hadeed notes that many of her clients come into the program with a misconception of what therapy is or should be. She explains to them that there’s more to therapy than feeling good; therapy presents both challenges and rewards.
“[Therapy] is not always about helping you to feel happy but rather learning to tolerate very normal feelings — worry, fear, anxiety,” she says. “It’s helping you to learn how to tolerate and better express those feelings, ask for help and if you feel like crying, crying. We help them learn that these emotions they are feeling are totally normal, and the more you try and contain them, the more they’re going to come out in other ways.”
The natural setting: Lastly, the natural environment lends itself to lessons of growth and healing. Many outdoor behavioral health care programs take groups into national parks and other breathtaking locales.
“There’s something healing about being outside,” Hallows says. “A good counselor … finds the wilderness setting a huge ally. [For example], counseling a person who has survived a rainy night, kept himself dry and started a fire. Compare [those skills and victories] to his or her life before. … Imagine how impactful one can be as a counselor if you have that experience and setting as an ally. The experience of living outdoors and living in a group of peers, those are the change agents, and if you add counseling to that, you’re leveraging the experience.”
Bringing the outdoors in
The counselors interviewed for this article agree that some of the elements that make outdoor behavioral health care successful can be introduced in more traditional office settings as well. For example, group therapy and hands-on experiential exercises will be more effective at reaching certain clients, Roberts says.
In addition, instead of talking with clients about what happened yesterday, consider working through challenges “in the here and now,” he says. “Give [the client] a task to do. Put together a puzzle [or do] something that is going to create some anxiety, a chance for failure — whatever fits for the client.”
As in outdoor behavioral health care, traditional counselors can also include discussions about overall health, including exercise, nutrition and sleep habits, Roberts says. In addition, both DeMille and Roberts recommend getting outside with clients during counseling sessions when appropriate, such as by taking walks. Furthermore, they say, counselors can prescribe clients to take walks or get outside more on their own.
Parents sometimes turn to outdoor behavioral health care as a last resort, an 11th-hour option after going through multiple therapists or programs, Hadeed says. She’d love to see the opposite: wilderness therapy as a family’s first option.
When most people think of counseling, they picture an office and the iconic leather couch. Instead, what if they pictured a mountainside group therapy session or a counselor chatting with a client as they hiked or went fishing?
“That would be my dream,” Hadeed says.
The freedom and light heart I deserve
The following prayer was written by 19-year-old Skye Angelo Rossman, a former client at Second Nature wilderness therapy.
“In my life, I have experienced much love and much hate. I did not enjoy the severity of the extremity. From this day forth, I ask to eliminate the one that doesn’t allow me the freedom and light heart I deserve. I have been through much and will go through much more. It is my hope that I am given the respect I give you in my life. It is with eternal gratitude I pray, amen.”
— Reprinted with permission from Sean Roberts and Skye Angelo Rossman
The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council: Collecting data, carving out a niche
In the early 1990s, what little knowledge most Americans had of wilderness therapy came via news headlines when something went wrong at a program, including, tragically, a handful of fatalities.
The decade had witnessed a marked increase in the number of programs launched, says Gil Hallows, chair of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. However, he says, wilderness therapy programs were operating independently, without a distinct sense of mission or best practices.
With this in mind, representatives from five wilderness therapy programs came together in spring 1996 with the aim of solidifying the field of wilderness therapy. They called themselves the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. In addition to establishing best practices, the group began collecting data to document, verify and maximize the effectiveness of the wilderness therapy treatment model, Hallows says.
“It became clear that organizing would allow us to set some standards [and] allow us to better work together in educating the public on what we do and how we do it. … We wanted to focus on doing this the right way,” says Hallows, who also serves as executive director of Legacy Outdoor Adventures, a wilderness therapy program in Utah.
Most recently, the council partnered with the Association for Experiential Education to develop a set of accreditation standards specific to wilderness therapy programs. The council adopted the accreditation model in early 2014. Member programs must now become accredited within two years of joining the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council.
Close to 20 years after its founding, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council has 17 member programs, plus two others currently going through the application process. The council hosts an annual symposium, held this past year in Park City, Utah, with education sessions and networking opportunities for professionals in the field.
More than 15 years’ worth of the group’s research — from statistics on program safety to client substance abuse pre- and post-participation — is available to the public through the council’s website (see OBHcouncil.com).
To become a member of the council, a program must collect data regularly for the council’s research mission. Members typically record data points about clients’ mental and overall health at intake, discharge and six months after being discharged from a program, Hallows says.
Statistics on the effectiveness of wilderness therapy, especially its cost effectiveness, are fueling the council’s campaign to improve insurance coverage of outdoor behavioral health care. Historically, insurance companies have been reluctant to reimburse clients for costs incurred for participation in wilderness therapy programs, Hallows says.
The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council is reaching out to insurance companies and providing data on wilderness therapy’s effectiveness in hopes of changing that scenario. The group also provides resources to help guide clients’ families through the appeal of a claim denial, Hallows says.
“Part of this campaign is to make outdoor behavioral health care more available to average families,” he says.
- Sabrina Marie Hadeed’s piece “Girls daring greatly,” a first-person perspective of how wilderness therapy can reach and help adolescent girls
- “Wilderness therapy: The question of affordability,” a look at the cost of wilderness therapy programs and the steps the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council is taking to make them more affordable for average families
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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