Wilderness Therapy: What Is and What It Isn’t

Wilderness therapy is a growing field of psychotherapy that uses an outdoor setting to encourage personal growth, positive change, and building of self-esteem as a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. There are as many different approaches to wilderness therapy as there are practitioners, but the common thread they all have is that nature is a powerful force of both balance and change in ways that can be representational to individuals struggling with life challenges.

Traditional counseling is modified to be more appropriate in an outdoor setting, whether it is engaging in horticultural activities, or exploring Oklahoma’s wilderness through horseback riding or on foot. The interconnectedness of the individual with the greater world and other people is reinforced in these settings while self-reflection is also encouraged without the distractions of modern living such as cell phones or television. Because of this, wilderness therapy is a useful course of therapy along with more traditional treatments for addiction, depression, anxiety, and other obsessive behavior.

However, the majority of wilderness therapy centers tend to be geared more toward teens and young adults who are having problems facing the challenges of growing up. Peer pressure, the need to perform well in school, family problems, drugs, and a myriad of other struggles are particularly overwhelming for younger people already stressed by the inherent changes brought about by adolescence itself.

Wilderness treatment centers are not the same as boot camps used as intervention by families for at-risk teens or young adults who are exhibiting out of control behavior in an attempt to regain control over their child. Boot camps style behavior modification approaches are far more aggressive and are modeled on the strict discipline of military recruit training camps. Some are run by the U.S. penal system in an attempt to rehabilitate criminals from returning to past life choices that got them in trouble in the first place. Private boot camps that focus on helping adolescents follow a similar model and unlike the more passive approach of wilderness treatment centers are based on an atmosphere of strictly enforced discipline.

Some equate wilderness therapy with boot camps, but their similarities are quite superficial. Boot camps may be located in a rugged environment, but they tend to have a one-size-fits-all approach in how they encourage self-esteem and self-discipline. Wilderness therapy meanwhile generally takes a more customized and individualistic approach, teaching people how to adjust their way of thinking about challenging situations to encourage more positive decision making.