The teenage years can be particularly precarious. With ever changing hormones and risks like bullying and peer pressure, it comes as no surprise that drug use and delinquent behavior are all too common among teens. Some studies have also found that the unique challenges during these years make teens particularly at risk of developing mental health conditions.
And that’s why wilderness therapy was developed. Based on the idea that exposure to nature and physical activity has positive effects on mental health, wilderness therapy puts participants through a range of outdoor adventure activities. The ultimate goal is to improve mental, emotional, and behavioral health to minimize the risk of drug abuse, mental health conditions, and criminal activity in at-risk adolescents and young adults.
The Pros of Wilderness Treatment
Wilderness therapy has its roots in mental health practices that date back as far as the early 1900’s. Today, the treatment process is particularly favored for young adults and adolescents because of the strong indications that they benefit most from the program. There are a number of reasons why wilderness treatment might be an ideal option for teens and young adults, and these include:
- Therapeutic Alliance
Oftentimes, clients — particularly teenagers — aren’t too keen on participating in therapeutic programs simply because it feels too much like therapy. High-risk teens who are predisposed to rebellious behavior might find the structured environment too limiting, restrictive, and formal for their liking. But with wilderness treatment, it seems that teenagers become more open to the experience since it doesn’t always feel like therapy. By engaging in activities alongside peers and their therapists, they develop a therapeutic alliance. This healthy bond feels more genuine and authentic, and develops in an organic way that encourages volitional participation.
- Improved Behavioral and Mental Outcomes
One of the reasons why parents and healthcare workers struggle so much to address the concerns of teenagers and young adults through traditional therapeutic programs is because these clients tend to have a negative perception of therapy in general. And when therapy is seen as embarrassing, pointless, or unnecessary, teens are prompted to resist. Wilderness therapy aims to prevent resistance by changing the environment and context of treatment all together. Instead of traditional talk therapy that tends to be boring and unpleasant for teens and young adults, wilderness treatment engages the whole body for a fuller, more dynamic experience that’s better suited to young clients. According to studies, involvement in wilderness therapy can significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and stress in teens and young adults. This leads to improved mental and emotional health which then encourages well-adapted behavior.
- Nature Exposure
A major distinction between traditional modes of therapy and wilderness treatment is the setting, and it’s not mere happenstance. Studies show that exposure to natural environments can have profound positive impact on mental health. Researchers were able to uncover that hiking can actually reduce negative thinking processes that result to stress, anxiety, and depression. Nature exposure can also reduce feelings of anger and fear, increasing certain hormones that are responsible for the pleasure response. What’s more, exposure to nature can also make people feel better emotionally which can be particularly beneficial when dealing with angsty, resistant teens and young adults.
Cons of Wilderness Treatment
While there are a number of benefits to wilderness treatment, there are a number of cons as well. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect treatment. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the downsides so you can fully understand whether a specific plan may or may not be ideal for you.
- Sudden Change of Environment and Routines
The thing about enrolling in a wilderness treatment program is that there isn’t much room for a gradual transition. Instead, participants are often placed directly into the new environment to begin treatment as soon as possible. For at-risk teens with volatile personalities and mental health conditions, this can further exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Fortunately, there are quite a few programs out there that take that issue into consideration. If you’re interested in a wilderness treatment program, make sure you take the time to consider the details. Choose programs that employ experienced professionals, offering clear-cut phases that help ease participants into the new environment.
- Risk of Physical Injury
Many of the activities that therapists prepare for their clients include full body exertion to engage all of the areas of the mind and body. This helps ensure that the treatment achieves the anticipated outcomes, promoting a holistic experience that positively impacts mental state through physical movement and exercise. However, there are dangers. There have been multiple reports of people being injured or even dying at wilderness treatment programs because of the difficulty of the activities imposed on the participants. For the most part, these risks can be minimized by ensuring that you’re choosing a treatment program with licensed, trained therapists and sufficient equipment and safety measures in place.
- No Standardized Program
With treatment programs and approaches varying widely between different treatment providers, there are numerous questions as to whether or not these programs actually work. Of course, research shows that exposure to nature and physical activity both do wonders for mental health. But because these programs don’t use a specific, measured process, and because activities can vary widely between programs, there’s no guarantee which one will work best for your specific situation. When shopping around for a wilderness treatment program, it’s important that you take the time to read through the details. Ask the program coordinators and therapists what activities they implement to find out whether or not they’re a good fit for your specific situation.
A Wild Take on Treatment
Whether it’s drug addiction, delinquency, or a predisposition to either, a wilderness treatment program might be able to help. Although it’s important to remember that it isn’t a perfect, fool-proof solution, wilderness treatment programs have helped thousands of teens and young adults avoid potentially dangerous paths. Just make sure you shop around before you choose a provider to make sure you’re getting safe, effective, and professional treatment to achieve the best outcomes.