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Wilderness therapy

Wilderness therapy is a form of outdoor education treatment that relies on the natural aspects of a primitive outdoor sojourn. Like adventure therapy and boot camps, wilderness therapy is often used for behavior modification by the families of young people. But the aims and methods of wilderness therapy don't center on behavior modification. Unlike adventure therapy, wilderness therapy programs avoid what they view as manipulations, contrived activities, psychological games, and contrived consequences (ANASAZI Foundation 1990). And unlike boot camps, they employ no force, confrontation, point or level systems, or other overt behavioral modification techniques or models. They stress assertiveness, open communication between staff and students, and are very group-oriented.

"Wilderness therapy programs trace their origins to outdoor survival programs that placed children in a challenging environment where determination, communication and team efforts were outcomes" (Conner 2005). According to the Director of the Wilderness Therapy Program at Naropa University, "through contemplative practice and the experiential outdoor classroom, students gain further self-awareness and the ability to respond to whatever arises in the moment" (Piranian 2006). And according to the founders of ANASAZI Foundation "we learned that whenever we adopted what we have come to call 'contrived' experiences, the overall impact often diminished for the participants" (ANASAZI Foundation 1990).



Some programs which advertise as "wilderness therapy" are actually boot camps in a wilderness environment. These can sometimes be distinguished from other wilderness therapy by such programs promising behavior modification for troubled teens, but it is hard to tell just from the ads. As in any type of treatment program, abusive situations have been reported and accidental deaths have taken place in some of these programs, although compared with similar outdoor adventure activities deaths are extremely rare. Among the most controversial programs have been those run by Steve Cartisano (High Country News 1996) (Samoan Observor 2000) or former Cartisano associates. There also exist "wilderness therapy" boot camps located outside the U.S. to avoid U.S. regulations, many of them unlicensed fly by night outfits. Such unlicensed outfits also exist in some U.S. states where the wilderness therapy industry is poorly regulated (The Oregonian 2000) (Outside magazine 1996). There is also controversy over whether parents should be allowed to force their child into a wilderness program, which is often the case. Apart from the thousands spent on the actual program (around $500/day), some parents pay a Teen escort company thousands to ensure that their child gets to the program by any means necessary.

October 2007 the United States Government Accountability Office had a hearing. In relationship with the hearing, they have issued a report about the wilderness therapy industry (GAO 2007)

After the Program

Many teens in wilderness programs report the experience as being positive, beneficial, and enjoyable. They learn independence, patience, assertiveness, self-reliance, and maturity; although it is unclear how long these changes last (FamilyFirstAid 2004). Outcome studies have been completed (OBHRC 2001) that show continued improvement in behavior one-year after attending wilderness therapy and new outcome studies are currently underway.

After a wilderness therapy program, students may return home or may be recommended for a therapeutic boarding school or an intensive residential treatment center belonging to the company that runs the wilderness program.

Parents and teens considering wilderness therapy programs should check them out thoroughly first, and be sure the program is a reputable one which does not use abusive techniques. A few wilderness programs have JCAHO, Council on Accreditation, and/or Association for Experiential Education accreditation, which requires thorough inspections to ensure the quality of the intervention and safety of services.


  1. ANASAZI Foundation (1990), , .
  2. Conner, Michael (2005), , .
  3. Piranian, Deb (2006), , .
  4. Russell, Keith (2002), , .
  5. High Country News, Christopher Smith (1996), , .
  6. Samoan Observor, Malifa, Savea Sano (2000), , .
  7. The Oregonian, Gregory, Gordon (2000), , .
  8. Outside magazine, Krakauer, Jon (1995), , .
  9. The Outdoor Behavioral Research Counsel, Russell, Keith C., Ph.D (1995), , .
  10. (OBHRC) Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative, Various studies done on behalf of the industry (2001), , .
  11. FamilyFirstAid, FamilyFirstAid (2004), , .
  12. Report, GAO (2007), , .

Wilderness Therapy programs

  • Lone Star Expeditions
  • Wilderness Quest
  • Redcliff Teen Wilderness Program
  • Aspen Achievement Academy
  • Information About Wilderness Therapy Programs
  • Blackwater Outdoor Experiences
  • HealingQuest LLP Adult Adjunct Wilderness Therapy
  • Adirondack Leadership Expeditions
  • Georgia Outdoor Therapeutic Program
  • Monarch Center for Family Healing Wilderness Therapy Program
  • Second Nature Wilderness Therapy
  • SUWS Youth & Adolescent
  • SUWS of the Carolinas
  • Lone Star Expeditions
  • ANASAZI Foundation: The Making of a Walking
  • Wendigo Lake Expeditions Inc: Wilderness Adventure Therapy Program
  • Open Sky Holistic Wilderness Therapy
  • Project D.A.R.E.: Wilderness Adventure Therapy Program for Youth in Custody
  • Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions
  • Outback Therapeutic Expeditions
  • Council on Accreditation
  • Association for Experiential Education
  • Bald Eagle Boys Camp

Watch organizations

  • International Survivor Action Committee
  • Community Alliance for the fair and ethical treatment of youth
  • Colation against institutionalized child abuse
  • Paula Reeves - activist
  • Project Nospanks page about institutions
  • Wilderness therapy - parents info

Wilderness Therapy Education

  • - Naropa University Wilderness Therapy Degree Program
  This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Wilderness_therapy". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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