Why Is Wilderness Therapy Effective | Wilderness Therapy Jobs
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Why Is Wilderness Therapy Effective

The Effectiveness of Wilderness Therapy

Healing is a process defined as making or becoming sound or healthy again.  Our bodies have the natural ability to heal themselves, and we can take advantage of this ability by utilizing nature’s gift of restoration.  Nature provides all of the natural healing mechanisms that we as human beings need.  The only problem is, we don’t always know exactly how to utilize nature’s healing power, and many of us are so consumed in our modern day lifestyles that we neglect this natural gift.  Wilderness therapy is a treatment modality that involves expeditions into the wilderness as a means of addressing behavioral or mental health issues.  Wilderness therapy involves the participation in a variety of adventurous outdoor activities in combination with traditional therapeutic techniques, all while living in a wilderness setting for extended periods of time.  Wilderness therapy programs are primarily geared towards at-risk youth and young adults in efforts to prepare them for adulthood, however some programs involve the inclusion of older individuals.  We will further explore what wilderness therapy is, what makes it so effective, and the research and evidence behind the effectiveness of wilderness therapy programs on mental and behavioral health.  

Why is Wilderness Therapy Effective?

Now, as a parent it may sound daunting to send your child into the wilderness for weeks or months at a time to have them “fend for themselves”, but this is not exactly the case.  Wilderness therapy programs are based on the idea that removing individuals from their current environment allows them the time and space to heal and reflect upon their problematic behaviors.  Additionally, sometimes the environments we are in may be the source of our problems, stepping away into a distraction-free environment helps adolescents to understand what is working for them and what is not, and may help them to make changes to their lifestyle or environment when they return home.  This approach promotes self-healing and emphasizes the connection between humans and nature, making the most of the healing power of nature.  In fact, being immersed in nature has a number of benefits to our overall well-being.  Some of the benefits of nature include: 


  • Reduced anger, fear, and stress
  • Reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension
  • Improved mood and reduction in depression & anxiety
  • Improved immunity
  • Reduced pain levels
  • Reduced recovery time and increased speed of healing


All of these benefits are quite impressive, it is no wonder that the immersion into nature is being used as a way to treat mental health concerns.  Wilderness therapy uses a combination of immersion into nature and traditional therapeutic techniques in order to maximize healing.  This approach has shown lasting effective results because it not only promotes healing, but it teaches individuals how to heal themselves.  

Research and Data behind Wilderness Therapy 

By this point you’re probably thinking all of this sounds great on paper, but what are the real results behind these programs?  Fortunately, there have been several studies done on wilderness therapy programs, researching the effectiveness of them to tell you whether or not they are worth your time and money.  

In 2005, Dr. Russell of Western Washington University, published a two-year follow up study analyzing the effectiveness and results of wilderness therapy programs on adolescents.  The participants were contacted two years after their completion of a wilderness therapy program to determine if the results of these programs lasted over time.  Listed below are the results of the study.  


After 2 years completing treatment:


  • Over 80% of parents reported wilderness therapy as being effective for their child
  • Over 90% of students reported the program being effective for themselves
  • 83% of adolescents reported doing better
  • Of the 83%, 58% were doing well or very well
  • The remaining 17% were still “struggling”
  • The majority of participants were doing better in school
  • 86% were in high school or college, or had graduated high school and were employed
  • 7% graduated from high school but were unemployed
  • 6% did not graduate from high school 
  • 1 participant was in prison
  • The majority reported an improvement in family communication 

Outdoor behavioral programs vs. Conventional treatment programs

On top of research supporting the effectiveness of wilderness therapy programs in the long-term, research from the University of New Hampshire has also shown that wilderness therapy can be both more effective and less expensive than conventional treatment programs.  These conventional programs range anywhere from residential facilities to outpatient programs or other traditional forms of healthcare.  Students of outdoor behavioral healthcare programs, such as wilderness therapy, showed significantly higher completion rates as compared to conventional treatment programs, with a 94% completion rate for outdoor behavioral healthcare as compared to a 37% completion rate of conventional treatment.  Additionally, when adjusted for completion rates the actual treatment costs per person were roughly $4,000 less for outdoor behavioral programs when compared to the cost of conventional treatment.  The more and more research coming out about the success rate and treatment outcomes of outdoor behavioral programs will hopefully incentivize more insurance companies to start providing coverage for these forms of programs, making them more affordable and accessible to families. 


Wilderness therapy and mental health 

With the mental health epidemic on the rise in adolescents, it is important that we find effective and sustainable options for treating mental health disorders.  If mental health goes untreated in teens, they are at risk of various problems that may persist into adulthood, this can include academic difficulties, substance abuse, risky behaviors, and even suicide.  A large part of what wilderness therapy specializes in is the treatment of mental health disorders, which may lead to or be an underlying cause of behavioral and substance abuse issues.  In a recent study, researchers found that wilderness therapy programs were beneficial to both mental and physical health.  In addition to students of the program experiencing significant improvements in their mental health functioning, they also showed higher rates of maintaining or moving to a healthy body mass index.  This was true for both students who were struggling with being overweight and those who were underweight due to eating issues.  These results are extremely promising for the future of mental and behavioral healthcare, particularly for our youth.   

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