Wilderness, a catalyst for change in treatment

By Mike DeLuca, LCSW

Mike DeLuca, LCSWSince the days of vision quests in the wild by First Nation youth, or much later in the 1960s when the Colorado Outward Bound School first started using wilderness to foster resiliency, character, and compassion in American youth, humans have sought out wild places for catalysts for change and transformation.  Why does wilderness offer so much opportunity for personal growth?  Why is it so powerful?  The answers are both broadly generalized and intimately personal at the same time.  No two people experience anything the same, and so it is with the wilderness.  There is extensive literature available on the myriad of different benefits associated with wilderness.  Far too much to comprehensively summarize here.  Most folks are generally familiar with naturalists, explorers, and philosophers throughout history writing on their own experiences in nature or wild places.  But how does that translate into treatment?

Treatment is often associated with change, and a few things in our society facilitate change better than wilderness.  Wilderness alone, even without the inclusion of formal treatment interventions facilitated by mental health professionals, has been shown to help us relax, focus, be more mindful, or improve our mood.  Look at the millions of Americans who flock to our nation’s natural wild places amidst the stressors of our modern hectic society each year.  Millions more seemingly discovering the benefits of these places for the first time in response to the global pandemic that has ravaged our way of life more recently.  Wilderness offers healing as well as change.

As a therapist at an outdoor behavioral health program (sometimes referred to as wilderness therapy), I often find myself explaining the purpose and intention behind the use of wilderness in treatment.  In the process, I am also dispelling many of the false assumptions and myths as well.  Wilderness is not used as a punishment.   It’s not a “boot camp” designed to “break youth down.”  It also isn’t just a de-stress retreat either; a place to escape and “forest bathe” away from the problems we face.  Adolescents will be the first to tell you; Wilderness Therapy is no vacation.  

I have noticed that we often (understandably) project our own experiences and beliefs about something as we seek to understand the world around us.  If wilderness has been a place of serene beauty and meditation for you, then it stands to reason that you might expect that is the intention for its use in treatment.  However, if you view wilderness as a scary, dirty, and arduous place to be avoided, its use in behavioral health would naturally seem punitive.  I can’t speak for all wilderness therapy programs out there or the ones that have come before.  I can comment on the role that wilderness environments play at Summit Achievement.

Since 1996, Summit Achievement has brought troubled teens to the rugged mountains of Western Maine.  It has utilized licensed therapists and evidence-based treatment and incorporated a hybrid model using both challenging wilderness expeditions and traditional classroom education.  The purpose of intentionally using both environments as part of a youth’s treatment rests in the inherent need to ensure that skills and experience have the opportunity to transition from one environment to another.  Teens need to take the skills they learn in the wilderness with them when they return to their families and communities.  Furthermore, the experience is a very social one.  Youth are integrated into close and intimate teams, and the journey is a shared experience.  They are part of something greater than their own experience, and they see directly how their choices and decisions affect others.  You can’t hide from those choices in the wilderness.  They are laid bare, and no one is immune to the consequences of nature.  This can be both humbling as well as empowering.       

In the early part of my career as an educator working at Outward Bound, I recall hearing a seasoned instructor tell her students: “If you always do what you have always done, then you will always get what you have always got.  So, if you want to get what you have never got, you must do what you have never done.”  I have carried this saying with me throughout my career. I find that wilderness experiences are adept at offering us opportunities to do things we have never done and therefore get things we have never gotten.  It draws us away from our proverbial comfort zones into that magical place where we discover, learn, grow, and change.  

For therapy to be effective, that magical place is essential.  It’s therapeutic gold.  Clients need to be willing to try new things and take risks.  They need to take responsibility and ownership over their lives, choices, thoughts, and emotions.  We are inherently afraid of the unknown and the uncomfortable.  When faced with such challenges, we often do all that we can to avoid the path.  We have grown accustomed to taking the easy way around.  In doing so, we deny ourselves the benefits attained from the more rugged path.  The abolitionist Frederick Douglas once said: “Without struggle, there is no progress.”  It is as true with civil rights and social justice as it is with personal growth and recovery.  Wilderness is the catalyst for change.  And when used intentionally by a skilled and trained clinician, it’s power can be multiplied!

A large and growing body of science supports what many of us have intuitively or anecdotally known and witnessed for years that exposure to wilderness correlates to better mental health outcomes among youth.  Studies have shown statistically significant positive relationships between exposure to nature and mental health outcomes for young people over the years.   More specifically, positive benefits are associated with attention, self-esteem, stress, resilience, anxiety, and depression.  

Wilderness offers us a precious space for self-examination and reflection.  It creates a sacred place for vulnerability and risk.  Where “failures” are cherished as instruments in the learning process, we can recreate a safer, healthier, more intentional culture.  One where young people can explore themselves and others and strengthen relationships.  Those are the foundational blocks for building trust—a place to challenge assumptions and crash through self-erected walls limiting us.  When facilitated appropriately by trained professionals, the actual risk of wilderness is relatively low, while participants’ perception of risk remains high.  We can manage many of the risks inherent in the wilderness while capitalizing on the beliefs that participants may hold about those inherent risks.  This dynamic allows us to challenge youth emotionally while maintaining high levels of safety.  Coupled with our ability to manage the culture and group dynamics, we have access to a therapeutic environment conducive to profound change and recovery.      

For more information on research related to the effectiveness of wilderness therapy among adolescents, please check out the resources available on Outdoor Behavioral Health Center’s (OBHC) link:  https://www.obhcenter.org/publications/.

For a comprehensive history of the use of wilderness in treatment, please see Dr. Will White’s (co-founder of Summit Achievement) book, Stories from the Field: A History of Wilderness Therapy and its companion podcast.