The wilderness therapy industry seeks to reinvent itself


In the basement classroom where the first Wilderness Therapy Symposium was held in 2002, event director Jim Lavin put out a plate of cookies and a bowl of Doritos and hoped for the best. Today, the event is held at an upscale hotel in Boulder, Colo., and Lavin spends a couple thousand dollars on hors d'oeuvres alone — reflections of the industry's effort to reinvent itself.

“Wilderness therapy” is a tricky term, and even those who practice it have a hard time agreeing what it means. Generally speaking, it brings a combination of traditional therapy, holistic living and outdoor experience to teenagers and young adults with mental, emotional and behavioral health issues. Practitioners today are more likely to use yoga or meditation than the tough love approach of the past, but to many people outside the industry, the phrase conjures dark images of boot camps and deaths in the desert.

At the annual symposium held last week, amid feel-good workshops about using art as therapy and “emotionally focused family therapy,” long discussions revolved around combating public misconceptions that still persist from the 1990s. In 1994, the death of 16-year-old Aaron Bacon in a boot camp-style therapy program in Utah caught the attention of the media and sparked a national outcry. Jon Krakauer’s Outside story about the incident, “Loving them to death,” convinced many people that wilderness programs for at-risk teens are little more than punishment, sometimes bordering on abusive.

The bad press of the 1990s was well-deserved, and it served as a “kick in the butt” for wilderness therapy, says Danny Frazer, co-founder of Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, Colo. It prompted programs to seek state licensure, amass academic research to support their work, and employ professional psychologists and medical doctors on staff. Allegations of abuse still pop up now and then, yet teenagers are twice as likely to end up in the emergency room when just staying home as they are when attending an accredited wilderness therapy program, according to research from the University of New Hampshire.

Still, public opinion has been slow to catch up with advances in care, and sensational press following in the footsteps of Krakauer’s piece continues to reverberate. In 2008, an online reader stumbled upon HCN’s own critique of wilderness therapy published in 1996 (which asked whether a federal crackdown was needed), and commented that she’d been considering putting her son in “one of these camps.” After reading our (by then outdated) article, though, she changed her mind.

Kids hiking in the Trinity Alps.

Therapeutic wilderness programs are trying hard to distance themselves from boot-camp style programs, but the latter still exist and some people don’t differentiate between the two. At the symposium, I watched two videos demonstrating the differences. The first video (warning: this link is graphic) made me so uncomfortable I nearly left the room. Filmed in 2009 at a youth boot camp in California that has since shut down, it shows a crying, trembling child being screamed at by four adults in military uniforms.

The second clip was recorded at the now-defunct Aspen Achievement Academy —  a highly praised wilderness therapy program, albeit one with its share of bad press. In the clip (which starts 28:29) a teenage girl refuses to hike, and one of the guides calmly convinces her to get up and keep going. Having worked as a wilderness therapy guide myself for two years, I know that getting through to a defiant teenager requires patience and skill. People who choose to work with at-risk populations in challenging outdoor environments do so because they believe that traditional therapy is often most effective when combined with the healing power of nature.

Liz Verea-Semion, a parent I ate lunch with at the conference who’s now on the board of a nonprofit that supports wilderness therapy, told me that her daughter tried to commit suicide when she was 13. A consultant recommended wilderness therapy, but “I’m Hispanic,” Verea-Semion said. “We don’t send our kids away. We will figure it out in the family.”

Twice-weekly therapy sessions and a new school didn’t help, though, and 18 months later her daughter began showing the same troubling symptoms. Verea-Semion turned to wilderness therapy in desperation. “Was it successful?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes.”

Success stories from the field abound, but collecting data to substantiate the anecdotes has been a challenge. For the past 15 years, independent researchers from the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative have been analyzing data and publishing papers that have largely shown wilderness therapy to be safe, and sometimes more effective than traditional residential therapy. Combined with accreditation from respected organizations such as the Association for Experiential Education, licensing standards and cost-benefit analyses, proponents believe the research will soon thrust wilderness therapy into the mainstream.

“It’s only a matter of time before insurance companies are convinced that it’s a bona fide treatment,” says Frazer, of Open Sky.

Insurance coverage is the holy grail of wilderness therapy. Companies hope that recognition from insurance providers will help legitimize their work in the eyes of the public and — perhaps more importantly — enable more kids from diverse backgrounds to participate in programs. Since most companies are privately run and can cost parents more than $400 a day, a major criticism of the industry is that it caters predominantly to wealthy Americans. Some families can get about 25 percent of costs covered by medical insurance, but they have to fight for it independently.

On the first day of the recent symposium, researcher Mike Gass announced that New Mexico Medicaid funds may soon be available for wilderness therapy programs there. The announcement came on the heels of a favorable article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology magazine. Together, the news was enough to make everyone a little giddy.

“The field is evolving,” said Will White, founder of Summit Achievement in Maine. “I don’t think people can get away with bad practices anymore.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Full disclosure: she has worked for two wilderness therapy programs, Alaska Crossings and Pacific Quest, and is in a relationship with an Open Sky employee who was not quoted in this story. Follow her on Twitter @KristaLanglois2. Photo from Flickr user Gary Robertson.

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