In April 1994, Bob and Sally Bacon stood in a Phoenix mortuary, grieving over their son Aaron's emaciated body. A month earlier, they'd had him hauled from bed and taken to a Utah wilderness therapy program that promised to help the 16-year-old kick his marijuana habit and regain his passion for life. Instead, North Star employees confiscated Bacon's sleeping bag on below-freezing nights and withheld food for days. When he fell ill and begged for help, he was accused of faking it. He was ridiculed for collapsing and soiling his pants. On March 31, Bacon died from a perforated ulcer.
The abuse and neglect that preceded his death sparked national outrage. Scores of publications, including High Country News, condemned wilderness therapy and called for a crackdown on the outdoor boot camps under whose care a dozen "at-risk" teens had died by the mid-'90s. Criminal investigations ensued, state funding dried up, and insurance companies began excluding wilderness therapy from their mental health coverage.
Yet the public scrutiny was also a wake-up call – a "kick in the butt" for reputable programs to band together and promote a more compassionate approach, says Danny Frazer, co-founder of Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, Colo. Over the last decade, poorly run programs have been largely edged out by better standards and state licensing, and the industry's safety record has improved. Teens enrolled in a recognized wilderness therapy program are now far less likely to land in the emergency room than teens who play football or snowboard, and programs more commonly use yoga and meditation than militaristic marches through the desert.
But despite years of working to redefine wilderness therapy as legitimate treatment, the tragedies of the past continue to haunt even practitioners who never endorsed North Star's harsh methods. "The general public doesn't really get the difference" between boot camps and "true" wilderness therapy, says Gil Hallows, a lean, charismatic 60-year-old who ran Utah's Aspen Achievement Academy for 16 years and now directs Legacy Outdoor Adventures. Nor, for a long time, did the mainstream mental health industry.