Wilderness Therapy Works

Teens in crisis who don’t receive appropriate treatment for their mental health disorders are at increased risk for behavioral and developmental problems. These include poor academic performance, dropping out of school, family conflict, substance abuse, violence, and other emotional and behavioral problems.

Research Confirms Effectiveness

Wilderness therapy, also referred to as Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH), has proven to be a safe and effective alternative for treatment-resistant youth. Wilderness therapy programs have evolved over the last five decades, growing into a comprehensive and clinically sophisticated intervention. Most wilderness programs now offer clinical assessments, individualized treatment planning, individual and group therapy, and substance abuse education and treatment.

Effectiveness of Wilderness Therapy

In 2003, Keith Russell and the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative conducted one of the first comprehensive empirical studies on the effectiveness of wilderness therapy, using a large sample of adolescents who were enrolled in multiple wilderness therapy programs.

Participants not only demonstrated significant emotional and psychological improvements, but maintained decreased levels of anxiety and depression over a 12-month period. Additionally, a statistically significant number of participants struggling with substance abuse issues maintained recovery over a 12-month period.

Rates of Anxiety, Depression and Substance Use

A second study, conducted in 2006, used a large sample of participants (774 adolescents) in wilderness programs for troubled teens. The study focused on rates of anxiety, depression and substance use. Participants were re-visited after six months, and the vast majority of behavioral changes had been maintained.

The students reported greater therapeutic engagement and readiness for change, reduction in stress levels, and decreased levels of anxiety and depression. Again, students reported freedom from substance abuse and dependency and an overall satisfaction with the therapeutic process.

Effectiveness of Wilderness Therapy Pt. II

As an extension of Russell’s earlier work, researchers conducted a rigorous, well-controlled effectiveness study of wilderness therapy programs. Using statistical assessment, sampling and retention techniques, the research team launched a multi-site, longitudinal study of the impact of wilderness programming on adolescents.

The study involved troubled teens enrolled in three different wilderness therapy programs.The vast majority of the participants had been in therapy before and 22% of participating adolescents reporting at least four prior therapists.

before the program

Statistical data was taken upon admission, after treatment had been started, upon graduation from the wilderness therapy program, and for extended periods of time after graduation. Upon admission, the teens in crisis reported:

  • Impairment in peer relationships and school performance
  • Significant symptoms of ADHD
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Substance abuse and dependency
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sleep disruption
  • Suicidality

After The program

Teens in the wilderness therapy effectiveness studies made statistically significant progress during treatment. This progress was tracked over extended periods, and the therapeutic gains of the participants were maintained. The troubled teens demonstrated marked improvements in the following areas:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Substance abuse and dependency
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Defiance and oppositionality
  • Impulsivity
  • Suicidality
  • Violence
  • Sleep disruption
  • School performance
  • Interpersonal relationships

Overall Findings

These results suggest that wilderness programs for troubled teens are teaching important emotion regulation skills, and that adolescents are continuing to refine their skills after graduation. Overall findings provide considerable support for the use of wilderness therapy in treating resistant adolescents.

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