Wilderness therapy is one of the most effective forms of intervention with many young people, especially older adolescents and young adults. The typical short term (6 to 12 weeks) therapeutic wilderness program can be the most effective way we know with many young people to (1) improve motivation and (2) provide an excellent assessment so families can better plan for the long term. (Some variations of the wilderness theme will also be discussed) The value of Wilderness for many young people simply cannot be overstated.
Wilderness and adventure programming takes many forms. In what we call "full immersion" programs, the program participant goes from day of arrival in the wilderness to day of departure living under very primitive and nomadic primitive conditions. "Base camp model" means that the participants periodically return to a base camp at least on occasion. A base camp takes many forms. In some cases, a base camp is simply a camp in the wilderness with no modern conveniences. in other cases it is a fully modern facility. In some cases groups return to base camps only occasionally; in other cases they return every night. When you see that a wilderness program is base camp model, we suggest you take a close look at the details behind that very broad term.
Like most powerful medicines -- and wilderness is a powerful medicine -- it powerful benefits and has risks and side effects. Families considering wilderness need to learn both the benefits and liabilities of wilderness as they really are before making a decision. We get very frustrated by the wrong information in circulation about wilderness both pro and con. Parents influenced by those bits of wrong information are very likely to make a bad decision.
Examples of correction of false information and areas of caution:
- Therapeutic wilderness programs are not boot camps.
- Use of a therapeutic wilderness program should never be a punishment.
- Use of wilderness as an automatic reaction to all forms of serious behavior problems is seriously inappropriate. When a professional suggests otherwise the competence of that professional should be questioned. Professional referral to a wilderness program should come only from a professional person who is very well informed at a detailed level as to specific nature of the person to be referred, including clinical history. A professional person referring to wilderness simply based on the very general claim of behavioral problems is probably a bad choice for a professional advisor.
- There are individual cases to the contrary but wilderness is rarely appropriate for a pre-adolescent child and should be considered with extreme caution for very young adolescents, notwithstanding the number of wilderness programs catering to that age group.
- Wilderness should be used with extreme caution for young people appearing to be on the autism spectrum.
- Short term programming like wilderness is usually not appropriate for children who firmly known to have severe attachment issues. The environment of wilderness is not problematic but establishing the short term relationships of wilderness might be. When attachment is the central issue, they need to be with a therapist making a long term commitment. Wilderness may be appropriate for getting a firm diagnosis even when major attachment issues are likely. Children and teens with severe attachment issues are not likely to develop the motivation to want to make therapeutic progress that we hope for with most teens in wilderness.
These considerations are more fully explained in the complete article on Wilderness programing.
Last update September 12, 2017