Outdoor Recovery: Insights into Wilderness Treatment Programs

This article will explore wilderness treatment programs, their various uses in mental health and addiction recovery, as well as potential benefits.    

An Introduction to Wilderness Treatment Programs

Wilderness treatment programs have increasingly gained recognition as effective therapeutic interventions for individuals struggling with a variety of mental health challenges and substance use disorders.

wilderness treatment programs

Uses for Wilderness Treatment Programs

Adolescents and young adults are the most common age group to undergo wilderness treatment programs. These unique programs leverage the healing power of nature combined with evidence-based therapeutic interventions to help participants develop:1
  • Healthier coping strategies
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Better interpersonal skills2

Effectiveness of Wilderness Treatment Programs

According to the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) Council, thousands of adolescents receive treatment from wilderness treatment programs each year in the United States.3

Research from the OBH Council also suggests positive outcomes from these programs, with around 80% of participants showing significant improvements during treatment and at a one-year follow-up.
One 2016 study found that wilderness treatment programs also maintained these improvements over time. The study revealed that 58% of the young people were doing better at a two-year follow-up.4

What are Wilderness Treatment Programs?

Wilderness treatment programs, also known as wilderness therapy or outdoor behavioral healthcare, are types of therapeutic interventions that use experiences in nature and outdoor activities as tools for treatment.
They are intended to foster personal and social responsibility, as well as emotional growth, through immersion in a wilderness or backcountry setting.
Wilderness treatment programs use the natural environment and outdoor experiences to promote healing, personal growth, and recovery. Some ways the natural environment is utilized include:

Connection with Nature

The natural environment can have a calming and grounding effect. This helps to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It provides a non-judgmental setting where individuals can explore their thoughts and feelings without the pressures and distractions of daily life.

Adventure and Physical Activities

Adventure-based activities like hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, and wilderness survival skills can foster self-efficacy, resilience, and problem-solving abilities. They present opportunities for overcoming challenges and learning new skills, which can boost self-esteem and confidence.
Physical exercise also provides health benefits and can improve mood and well-being.

Mindfulness

Being in nature can encourage mindfulness and greater awareness. Activities such as observing wildlife, listening to a stream, or simply sitting quietly in the wilderness can promote relaxation and introspection.

Group Dynamics

Living and working in a group in the wilderness fosters teamwork, communication skills, and empathy. Participants learn to depend on each other, work through conflicts, and support their peers. This promotes social skills and emotional intelligence.

Therapeutic Metaphors

Wilderness experiences can serve as metaphors for personal struggles. For example, a participant might learn to navigate a difficult hiking trail, which could symbolize overcoming personal challenges. These experiences provide tangible lessons that can be applied to real-world issues.

Inherent Challenges

Living in the wilderness brings inherent challenges that require perseverance, adaptability, and problem-solving, such as dealing with bad weather or learning to cook over a campfire. These challenges can be empowering and contribute to personal growth and resilience.

Structured Routine

Wilderness programs often involve a structured daily routine, which can provide a sense of stability and consistency. This structure can help participants develop self-discipline, time management, and other important life skills.

Distance from Stressors and Triggers

Being in a wilderness setting removes individuals from their usual environment and its associated stressors and triggers, whether those are related to substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, or other detrimental influences.

Reflection and Journaling

Many wilderness programs encourage participants to reflect on their experiences and feelings, often through journaling. This process can facilitate self-discovery and emotional processing.

How These Elements Come Together

These therapeutic elements, combined with ongoing therapeutic support from trained professionals, can lead to significant personal growth and healing.
It’s important to remember, though, that everyone’s experience with wilderness therapy will be different, and what works well for one person might not work as well for another. The process requires a willingness to engage with the program and the natural environment.

Core Elements of Wilderness Treatment Programs

Each wilderness treatment program is different. However, these programs are guided by common core principles, such as:

Experiential Learning

As the adage goes, “Experience is the best teacher.” In wilderness therapy, individuals learn more from their actions than from passive listening or reading. Through active participation and reflection, these individuals can better understand their strengths, limitations, and ways to improve.

Positive Peer Culture

Community and teamwork are vital aspects of these programs. Working in groups promotes a sense of responsibility, empathy, and cooperation among individuals. Through peer feedback, individuals can gain insight into their behavior and its impact on others.

Natural Consequences

This principle involves learning from the outcomes of one’s actions. For example, if an individual doesn’t set up their tent correctly, they might get wet in the rain. These real-life, immediate consequences can be more impactful than theoretical discussions.

Individual and Group Therapy

Though much of the therapeutic process is tied to the natural environment, most programs also incorporate complementary traditional therapeutic approaches as well.

These approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family therapy, among others.

Strength-Based Approach

Rather than focusing solely on problems or deficits, wilderness therapy often uses a strength-based approach that recognizes and builds upon the individual’s capacities and resources.

Holistic Wellness

Many programs emphasize holistic health and well-being. This can include aspects of physical fitness, nutrition, mindfulness, and spirituality.
In the case of substance use, wilderness therapy can provide a supportive environment for detox and recovery. The physical distance from usual triggers, combined with therapeutic support, can help individuals to begin their recovery journey.
Throughout the program, individuals learn healthier coping strategies, build resilience, and work on the underlying issues that contribute to substance use.

How Wilderness Treatment Programs Differ from Other Therapeutic Interventions

Unlike traditional therapy settings such as offices, hospitals, or residential treatment centers, wilderness treatment programs take place in a natural environment. This setting is believed to have a calming and grounding effect, allowing for introspection and personal growth.

Flexible Application

Wilderness treatment programs are used for a range of mental health issues and behavioral problems, including, but not limited to:
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • Conduct disorders
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Self-esteem and self-identity issues
  • Trauma and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
  • Family conflicts
  • Behavioral problems
  • Problems with social skills and peer relationships

Action-Based Interventions

While most therapies are talk-based, wilderness programs are more action-based, emphasizing learning by doing. Participants engage in wilderness skills (like backpacking, navigation, or fire-building), teamwork, and problem-solving.
These activities are used as metaphors to address the challenges individuals face in their personal lives.

Peer Support

Participants in wilderness treatment programs typically live and work in groups, fostering social skills, teamwork, and peer support. This is different from individual therapy sessions and may complement family therapy interventions.

Integrating Therapy and Daily Life

Wilderness therapy integrates the therapeutic process into daily life and activities. Rather than having designated therapy sessions, therapeutic conversations can happen throughout the day – during meals, while hiking, or around the campfire.

Building Skills Through Real-World Challenges

The wilderness environment offers inherent challenges that can build resilience and self-efficacy. These can include physical challenges (like hiking or dealing with inclement weather), as well as emotional challenges (like living in close quarters with others or being away from technology).

Approaching Wellness Holistically

Wilderness treatment programs often take a more holistic approach to mental health, addressing the mind, body, and spirit. They may incorporate physical activity, nutrition, mindfulness, and nature-based interventions.

What Are the Limitations of Wilderness Treatment Programs?

As with any treatment option, there are some limitations associated with wilderness treatment programs.
Limitations include:
  • Cost: Wilderness therapy programs can be expensive, and not all insurance plans cover them. The financial burden can be a significant obstacle for many families.5
  • Physical Demand: The physically demanding nature of wilderness therapy might not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with certain physical health conditions or disabilities.
  • Limited Access to Certain Therapies: While many programs incorporate traditional therapeutic techniques, access to specific types of therapy or medications might be more limited in a wilderness setting compared to a residential or outpatient facility.
  • Transitioning Post-Program: Transitioning back to daily life after the program can be challenging. Without proper follow-up care and support, some individuals may struggle to apply the skills they learned in the program to their home environment.

Eligibility Determinants for Wilderness Treatment Programs

Despite their broad application, wilderness treatment programs are not suited to everyone. The factors that determine eligibility often include:

Mental Health Status

Certain mental health conditions, especially severe conditions, might not be suitable for wilderness treatment programs. This could include severe depression, psychosis, bipolar disorder in a manic phase, or other conditions where the individual may pose a risk to themselves or others.

Physical Health

Wilderness programs can be physically demanding. Therefore, individuals with certain health conditions or physical disabilities may not be suitable for some programs, particularly those that can’t be managed in an outdoor setting.

Willingness to Participate

Although some degree of resistance can be normal, especially at the beginning, individuals who are completely unwilling to participate or who consistently disrupt the program might not be suitable candidates.

History of Violence or Aggression

Given the group nature of most wilderness programs, individuals with a history of violent or aggressive behavior, particularly toward others, might not be suitable candidates as they could pose a risk to the safety of the group.

Age

Most wilderness therapy programs are designed for specific age groups, typically adolescents or young adults. However, there are programs available for different age groups, including adults and families.

How is Eligibility Determined?

Before enrollment, a thorough assessment is typically carried out to determine the individual’s suitability for the program.

This should include a comprehensive review of their medical, psychiatric, and treatment history. It should also include an assessment of their current physical health, mental health, and motivation for treatment.

The individual’s safety and well-being should always be the primary concern when considering the suitability of a wilderness treatment program.

Activities and Interventions Used in Wilderness Treatment Programs

Wilderness treatment programs employ a variety of activities and interventions that are carefully designed to:
  • Promote personal growth
  • Foster positive behavioral changes
  • Improve mental health 
Common activities and interventions include:

Outdoor Adventures

This includes activities such as hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, camping, and fishing. These adventures offer physical challenges that build skills surrounding resilience, teamwork, and problem-solving. Overcoming these challenges can increase self-confidence and foster a sense of achievement.

Survival Skills Training

Participants may learn how to build a shelter, make a fire, cook food outdoors, and navigate in the wilderness.
These skills can:
  • Empower participants
  • Improve their self-efficacy
  • And serve as metaphors for overcoming challenges in their personal lives

Group Activities and Games

These can build teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. They also offer opportunities for participants to receive feedback from their peers and therapists about their behaviors and attitudes in a supportive environment.

Solo Time

Participants might spend time alone in nature for reflection and introspection. This helps to foster self-awareness, mindfulness, and a deeper connection with the natural environment

Therapeutic Assignments

Participants might be given specific assignments to complete, such as writing in a journal, creating art, or engaging in other expressive activities. These assignments can help individuals process their emotions, articulate their thoughts, and explore their identities.

Group Therapy Sessions

Group therapy sessions offer a structured time for participants to:

  • Share their feelings and experiences
  • Receive support from their peers
  • And work through interpersonal dynamics

Individual Therapy Sessions

In individual sessions, therapists can tailor the intervention to the participant’s unique needs, helping them to address personal issues, set goals, and track their progress.

Mindfulness and Stress Reduction Practices

These may include techniques to promote relaxation, focus, and present-moment awareness. These activities can include yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises.

Family Involvement

Some programs involve family members in the therapeutic process, either through visits, letters, or family therapy sessions. This can help to address family dynamics, improve communication, and support the participant’s transition back home.

How These Interventions Lead to Wellness

Each activity or intervention is designed to contribute to the overall therapeutic process in different ways. The unique interventions and connection with nature provide a comprehensive and immersive therapeutic experience.
This can promote personal growth, emotional healing, and positive behavioral change.
wilderness treatment programs

Wilderness Treatment Programs at Choice House

Choice House is a mental health treatment facility located in Boulder, Colorado. Our team of expert clinicians uses the most current research to offer superior care. We believe that successful recovery starts with effective treatment.

What We Offer

At Choice House, we offer specialized wilderness treatment programs for young men struggling with substance use disorder, mental health issues, and behavioral problems. Our program features a structured environment, therapeutic support, peer support, skill building, and aftercare planning.

These unique features equip us to help you overcome your struggles with an eye on the horizon of overall healing and wellness.

Start Your Journey Today

If you’ve struggled to find recovery through traditional treatment methods, our wilderness treatment programs may be a more effective choice. We’re ready to approach your concerns with flexibility and understanding.

If you’re ready to start your journey to wellness, contact us today to find out more about how our wilderness treatment programs can help.

Participants leave their usual environments and enter nature. In these settings, they must learn to work as part of a team and develop survival skills.1

ready to choose a life worth living?

Don’t let addiction or co-occurring mental health conditions keep you from leading the happy, healthy, and empowered life you deserve. Contact Choice House today and embrace recovery.

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