If going into the woods sounds like an intimidating prospect, or the opposite of a therapeutic experience, it may be worth a second look. Wilderness therapy is growing in popularity because of its effectiveness with a multitude of populations, including kids. In a survey of 858 participants of wilderness therapy, 83% reported that they had maintained progress and made ongoing improvement two years later. Of the group surveyed, 81% felt that outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment is an effective approach. It is so effective a group of wilderness treatment programs built a collaborative in 1996 called Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. This group of licensed mental health providers had seen the effectiveness of the model in practice, and knew that as a group, they could offer more to their clients and share best practices.
Why the Wilderness Heals
What is it about being out in nature that offers such a therapeutic benefit? Is it the fresh air? The trees? The open sky? Yes. It is all these things, and more. Wilderness therapy offers a separation from the everyday experiences of one’s life and helps people recalibrate their perspective. When we are in nature, particularly in a wilderness therapy setting, we are forced to hit pause on our automatic thoughts, shift our focus over to the moment, and tune into a more mindful part of ourselves. The wilderness reminds us that we are a small part of something incredibly beautiful and vast; it reassures us that our challenges will pass, just as the changing leaves, and the water rushing down the river.
Wilderness therapy also builds a sense of self-efficacy. Teens struggling with self-esteem and challenges with depression find that they are more capable than they had realized. Recognizing one’s own resilience is empowering. Pushing their own abilities in rugged terrain reminds teens that they are stronger than they thought; this translates into other aspects of life. Wilderness therapists help kids untangle self-perceptions that no longer serve them and reestablish a sense of self that builds on strengths and abilities.
Talley Webb, MA, CRMC