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Learning and healing in the great outdoors

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By Alexandra Pecci

Laine Oaks says it’s hard to explain why people intentionally cut themselves. But she did it for the first time after switching to a new antidepressant, a drug that made suicidal thoughts rage through her mind. 

“I had thought about it before, but I had never done it,” the 17-year-old says of cutting. “Rather than having too much feeling, I felt as if I could feel nothing.”

Her mother, Preot Oaks, says she saw 18 cuts on her daughter’s arm and knew she had to do something to keep Laine from hurting herself even more drastically.

For the Oaks family, the answer was sending Laine to participate in the ANASAZI Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Program, a wilderness therapy program based in Arizona that aims to help adolescents aged 12-17 work through things such as substance abuse, mental health issues, and emotional or behavioral crises. (There are also programs for adults).

Preot knew she wanted Laine to go to ANASAZI because her older daughter, Raili, also attended the program when she was 17 years old. Raili, now 22, was a self-described angry, rebellious teenager.

“She was out control,” Preot says. “She could sneak out of anything: The dog door, the attic window. She ran away for three days.”

Preot says she’d heard about ANASAZI through friends, but had many questions. She’s not alone. Parents who contemplate a wilderness therapy program for their teens wonder things like: Is it safe? Is it punitive? Will my son or daughter hate me or feel like I’m shipping them off? Is it boot camp? Will it work?

And of course there’s the most basic question of all: “What is wilderness therapy?”

Wilderness therapy defined

Wilderness therapy is a type of therapeutic intervention that uses outdoor- or wilderness-based activities, usually in combination with more traditional therapies, to help people work through everything from substance abuse to mood disorders. There are programs for adults as well as ones designed specifically for adolescents and young adults. Often, wilderness therapy is just a first step toward recovery; many patients leave these programs with after-care plans that include other therapies or interventions.

Although wilderness therapy programs were once plagued by lax oversight and sometimes dangerous activities, in recent decades they’ve become more clinically focused and safe. Programs are starting to be independently accredited, and many are now backed up by long-term outcomes research. Private insurances are also beginning reimburse some of the costs, although most programs are paid for out-of-pocket (scholarships may also be available).

Today, research shows that modern-day wilderness therapy programs, such as ones belonging to the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, are both effective and safe for participants, says Michael Gass, PhD, LMFT, professor and coordinator of the Outdoor Education Program in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire. Gass is also the director of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative and director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) research database, both of which aim to“create a repository to answer questions that we have now, as well as questions we will have in the future about these programs,” he says.

Lessons from the wilderness

Researchers believe wilderness therapy causes positive changes in teens because of the use of the natural environment, coupled with therapeutic strategies “where the interventions are not just talked about, they’re actually done,” Gass says.

Many parents turn to wilderness therapy programs because traditional interventions haven’t worked, says Josh Watson, LCSW, director of admissions and marketing for Aspiro Group, which runs programs for adolescents and young adults in Utah (there are also adult programs).

“Traditional talk therapy wasn’t designed for adolescents,” Watson says.

“Wilderness therapy is unique because it’s more hands on, it’s more interactive, it’s more kinetic and engaging…adolescents learn better with things that they can feel and see and touch.”

Erin Levine, LCSW, LCAS, clinicaldirector of admissions at Pacific Quest in Hawaii, agrees that talk therapy doesn’t always work for teens and young adults.

“At that age at lot of times it’s not always beneficial to talk. They develop a sort of talk fatigue,” Levine says. “At the heart of the outdoor movement is the idea of, ‘Let’s help people have a different experience and then let’s talk about it.’ Instead of maybe learning something in a book, and then doing it, we’re going to do the thing first.”

To read more about Wilderness Programs and to hear from teens that have participated, view the latest issue of Renew.

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