Wilderness therapy differs drastically from traditional therapeutic methods. The intensity and challenges of a wilderness therapy program results in major changes in participants over a relatively short period of time.
How are these approaches different?
Traditional therapy typically happens in an office setting. After an initial consultation, therapy is continued with regularly scheduled appointments—generally 45 minutes to one hour. Therapy happens in an isolated context following a particular modality of treatment (cognitive behavioral therapy being just one type) prescribed to address anything from depression, family issues, or a number of other mental illnesses.
The core therapeutic tool used in wilderness therapy is nature, allowing staff to step back from the traditional position of authority and let the challenges of nature drive the program. Wilderness therapy is multifaceted in its approach. Generally combining a number of treatment modalities (CBT, dialectical behavioral therapy, experiential learning, holistic nutrition, mediation, etc), wilderness therapy is a more intensive type of treatment. The setting alone sets it apart from other kinds of treatment programs. Therapy happens in nature, and this alone can be challenging for some. Participants meet with therapists once a week, but the therapist generally spends 24 hours with the participants, which includes both individual time plus a group session. During these weekly sessions, participants are restocked with food and receive needed items and letters from home. Re-supply and therapy happen at the same time, allowing for a fresh perspective to meet the new challenges that will be faced in the upcoming week.
Why is wilderness therapy a more effective treatment?
Positive changes happen faster and more profoundly in this type of setting.
The peacefulness and the lack of stimulus that comes with nature provide the key location for participants to reflect and adapt. The complete removal from a former negative situation is one of the key factors in the effectiveness of these programs. Participants are out of their comfort zone, they are uncomfortable and they are forced to confront their issues. Because there are no distractions such as friends, school and technology, participants are more open to doing the work. They have also never been challenged to the extent that they are in wilderness therapy, and as a result participants are more accessible emotionally. They are raw, vulnerable and more willing to participate in individual and group therapy. Strong relationships are formed quickly, with both staff and peers, which promotes deeper and more meaningful self-reflection.
When participants return home they are much more likely to continue on the positive path that they developed in wilderness therapy. Aftercare may include community therapy sessions in a traditional setting, but there is no substitute to the profound effect that wilderness therapy has on its participants while they are in the program. In just a few short weeks a person’s entire character can be transformed.