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Following the migration of the Outward Bound program from Europe to the United States in the 1950s, several programs throughout the country began to incorporate the principles of wilderness therapy and outdoor education. According to an article by Stacy B. Shaw that appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of UCLA’s Undergraduate Psychology Journal, the “noticeable emotional and psychological benefits” experienced by Outward Bound clients prompted the development of formal wilderness therapies designed to meet the specific needs of at-risk clinical populations.”

Today, hundreds of wilderness experiences are available, with dozens of programs offering therapeutic treatments for individuals such as adolescent substance abusers and teens with behavioral disorders. These programs offer enlightened, innovative, and research-based approaches to help young people who are struggling with behavioral challenges, emotional issues, or substance abuse.

The student is removed from their troubling environment that was conducive to their unhealthy behaviors. The best wilderness therapy programs are accredited, offer highly trained staff, and place a priority on student safety. These are not boot-camp programs that work kids to the bone, deprive them of food and water, etc. Most of these programs have been shut down and no longer exist.

Wilderness programs focus on personal and social responsibility. Instead of yet another adult in the teen’s life using authority to impose their views on the student, wilderness therapy focuses on the impact of the teen’s behavior. For example, let’s say a student is assigned to gather firewood to cook the evening meal and the student refuses. The student’s lack of action means that the entire group is faced with eating a cold dinner as opposed to a hot meal. This impacts the teen greatly because his or her behavior impacts their peers, which is more meaningful to a teen than how their behavior impacts an adult, which they don’t care much about.

In their attempts to discover and describe the reasons behind the successes of therapeutic wilderness programs, many researchers and experts have noted that the programs feature the development of intense interpersonal relationships, the opportunity to overcome significant emotional and physical challenges, and the encouragement to gain a greater understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world.

Working together in settings that are free of the myriad distractions of today’s stimulation-intensive world allows considerable growth to occur in relatively short periods of time. Wilderness therapists work so closely and so intensely with the teens, they are able to make significant accomplishments together.

In wilderness therapy, the student learns self-reliance, the value of effective communication, and how to engage in teamwork. The teen engages in individual therapy with an assigned therapist, group therapy with other students, and family therapy with the teen’s parents.

As a registered nurse and independent educational consultant, Ms. Cain, Founder of Global Academic Consultants, feels that wilderness therapy is very effective because it addresses the family dynamic in detail. Parents learn how to communicate with and manage their teen in an effective manner. The teen learns the value of having a supportive family. Joanna has seen many times how this therapy repairs the parent-child dynamic. When this dynamic is healed, the student tends to get back on track and move forward with their goals.

The timeframe that the student attends wilderness therapy averages 8 to 10 weeks with a monthly cost of roughly $15K. The cost includes everything, such as clothing, gear/equipment, toiletries, and food. Some health insurance companies will reimburse families for the medical cost, which is the therapy the student receives, but not the tuition cost. Many programs offer financing and payment plans.

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