Summer Camp Counselors vs Wilderness Therapists | Wilderness Therapy Jobs
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Summer Camp Counselors vs Wilderness Therapists

Summer Camp Counselors vs Wilderness Therapists

If you’ve ever been a summer camp counselor, you know how rewarding your work can be for both you and the campers. Summer camp counselors help to plan, lead, and implement camp programs for children. Camp counselors work to provide quality recreational and educational opportunities for the campers, while still maintaining a balance of fun and safety. So, what if you love your job as a summer camp counselor but need to find a job that’s full-time? Fortunately, there might just be a perfect solution for you. 

What are Wilderness Therapists?

Wilderness Therapists do similar work to that of a camp counselor, but with a bit more intention. These therapists work year-round in the wilderness setting helping kids and young adults who are struggling with mental health concerns or are in need of a behavior change. Wilderness therapy jobs can be a great step-up for those in the camp counseling field. Many of the skills learned in summer camp are transferable to wilderness therapy jobs. Camp counselors learn to plan and implement lessons, which include adventurous and educational activities, as well as providing guidance and support to all the campers. Wilderness therapists do all this and more. Wilderness therapy jobs may be a bit more challenging yet rewarding than a typical summer camp counseling job. Wilderness therapists work with students who are struggling with behavioral or emotional issues and use a combination of therapy and adventure in the wilderness setting to promote lasting behavior change. Of course, this work may require a bit more training than a typical camp counseling job, but it also provides a bit more of a career path.

Differences between camp counselors and wilderness therapist

Although summer camp counselors and wilderness therapists have many overlapping skills and responsibilities, the jobs themselves still have many differences. As the name suggests, the role of a wilderness therapist involves the implementation of more therapeutic techniques and targeted exercises into the daily lesson plans to help students to internalize healthier thinking and behavior patterns. This includes assessing problems through debriefing sessions, providing therapy, monitoring progress, and reinforcing effort and character development. Wilderness therapy jobs require a bit more intention, as you are working with troubled teens in need of a bit more guidance and support. Some of the primary responsibilities of a wilderness therapist, which may not be a responsibility of a camp counselor include:

girl in forest
  • Individual and group therapy sessions
  • Clinical intake and summaries (including the completion of all related paperwork)
  • Case management
  • Implementing behavior modification strategies
  • Sleeping and staying on-site for extended periods of time (programs may be 4-days on 3-days off or something similar)

Research Supporting Wilderness Therapy Programs

Wilderness therapy jobs require a bit more work and commitment than a typical summer camp counseling job, however, there is lots of research supporting the positive and lasting impact of these programs. Research from the University of New Hampshire on substance abuse and mental health in teens finds wilderness therapy programs to be more effective and cost-efficient than other treatment programs. In fact, the study found that outdoor behavioral programs, like wilderness therapy camps, have shown nearly 3 times more improvement in the behavior of adolescents after one year, at nearly half the cost of other residential treatment programs. Additionally, in a study by the Mentor Research Institute (MRI) found that by one year after the completion of treatment, 82 percent of wilderness therapy graduates showed sustained improvements in their lives and reported doing much better mentally and physically. 

Principles of Wilderness Therapy

So, what exactly makes wilderness therapy programs so effective in adolescents? Well, there are a few foundational principles of wilderness therapy programs that are thought to make them so effective. 

  1. Removal from everyday life. Part of what makes wilderness therapy so effective in regard to behavior change is that it removes the individual from their current environment, which may have several stimuli contributing to their behavior. Being submerged into a new and healing environment helps the individual to address their problematic behaviors and find healthy coping mechanisms. 
  2. Immersion into nature. Just being in nature has a large number of benefits to our health. When we interact with nature, we naturally feel less stressed, more energized, and clear minded. Nature has even been shown to boost immunity and reduce recovery time. Wilderness therapy takes advantage of nature’s healing powers creating a powerful approach to recovery and change. 
  3. Reliance on natural consequences. In most wilderness therapy programs, students will be expected to live, sleep, and eat in their natural environment. Students learn how to build campfires, prepare and cook their own food over the fire, pitch and sleep under tarps, and navigate obstacles in adventurous activities such as rock climbing or backpacking. This helps students to build intrinsic motivation and become more self-reliant. 

Wilderness therapy is NOT wilderness boot camp

Wilderness boot camps are not the same as wilderness therapy camps. Wilderness boot camps mainly focus on a military-style treatment, focusing on punishment rather than reform. Boot camps are not nearly as effective as therapy camps, they create immediate behavioral change but not lasting. Although boot camp may be effective for some teens, the success rate for these camps is very low, and can even result in more anger or problematic behaviors. These camps do not focus on understanding how to create and sustain behavioral changes overtime and can even be potentially dangerous to the students. Wilderness therapy works by teaching students how to navigate obstacles on their own, through a variety of outdoor activities and educational exercises, in a safe and controlled environment. Wilderness therapy shows a much higher success rate than boot camp because it pushes students to challenge themselves, while still providing the support and room to heal that they need.

Wilderness therapy could be your next step!

For anyone interested in the outdoors and utilizing its powerful healing techniques wilderness therapy may be the perfect industry. If becoming a wilderness therapist piques your interest, camp counseling is a great place to start. Camp counselors begin to learn how to navigate their natural environment and learn the basic outdoor skills necessary to become a wilderness therapist. In addition to outdoor skills and experience, it is best that aspiring wilderness therapists have a degree or experience in the behavioral health field, which includes psychology or recreational therapy. The combination of outdoor skills and experience in behavioral health makes for a great fit for a wilderness therapist. Wilderness therapy is an incredibly rewarding field, not only are you able to help adolescents heal and become the best versions of themselves, but you are able to experience the healing powers of nature for yourself. 

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