Healthy Choices: Wilderness Therapy Helps Troubled Teens Build Smart Life Skills
Wilderness therapy – the process of removing troubled teens from their "emotional comfort zone" by asking them to live in a wilderness setting – is now recognized as one of the single most effective treatment solutions for struggling adolescents. By teaching teens to care for themselves and to take responsibility for their personal well-being, wilderness therapy helps participants develop the skills they need to think more insightfully, realistically assess their abilities, improve their communication skills and practice healthy behavioral habits.
Wilderness therapy programs like Saranac, New York's Adirondack Leadership Expeditions also use the reality of a natural setting to help struggling adolescents recognize the results of their behavioral choices and encourages them to build different, more effective coping strategies, according to the program's Clinical Director Dr. Robert Theisen.
"The practical problem-solving skills teens are confronted with on a daily basis in the wilderness are valuable – and very real – metaphors for making better choices in their lives," says Theisen.
According to Theisen, as a struggling teen objectively learns to solve practical problems (like keeping themselves warm and dry in challenging environmental conditions), they also begin to discover their own ability to adapt to many situations in their lives – and to solve problems creatively without damaging their own well-being or their relationships.
"Wilderness therapy helps troubled teens understand, for instance, that what you put into a situation is what you get out of it," he says. "It is a school of nature, reinforced by social experience and group sessions, and their experiences are metaphors for the rest of their lives. Positive experiences become confidence-builders that help to reinforce future decisions and behaviors."
All kinds of teens can benefit from wilderness therapy programs like that offered by Adirondack Leadership Expeditions, Theisen states. Adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 who are struggling with academic problems, behavorial issues – including violence and/or substance abuse, emotional struggles like depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, and teens dealing with family upheaval – including parental divorce, adoption or adjusting to a new step-parent or guardian – can all benefit from a therapeutic wilderness experience.
"We get kids who have been in years of multiple treatments with psychologists and psychiatrists, but did not really respond to the treatments. Typically, they come to Adirondack Leadership Expeditions and really respond within days or weeks," Theisen says. "A lot of the success is related to the fact that they are in the wilderness 24/7 and can't escape or avoid dealing with their own behavior. They're in a totally new environment, a wilderness, with more direct choices."
When troubled teens receive treatment through a wilderness therapy program, they also benefit from their role as part of a new peer group – and a community of other adolescents who are in the process of dealing with similar struggles.
Because most wilderness therapy programs – including Adirondack Leadership Expeditions – have rolling, or continuous, admissions, teens can enter the therapy program at any time. This new participants have the opportunity to learn from peers who are already learning to make healthy behavioral and personal choices.
"Their peers are very similar to them but may be several weeks ahead of them in the program," explains Theisen. "They recognize their issues, recognize that they are unhappy, and have made poor choices. Now they are working toward the future and better choices – and when a new student is brought in, it is easy for them to connect with their peers."
"The Adirondack Leadership Expeditions wilderness program is like continuous therapy," he adds. "Field instructors, supervised by highly qualified clinicians, live with students in the wilderness and effectively, the students are in therapy all the time."
In addition to the daily lessons presented by the routine of wilderness living, the program also includes intensive weekly therapy sessions and abundant opportunities to process the treatment. "If a student has to work on anger management such as using appropriate expressions rather than passive aggressive behaviors, staff members will point out a student's inappropriate behavior and also urge them to reflect on the deeper causes and connections of their behavior."
Another advantageous aspect of wilderness therapy programs like Adirondack Leadership Expeditions is simply the fact that teens have the chance to progress at their own rate – and to work through their challenges and concerns within a healthy, supportive community.
"The length of treatment is open-ended," says Theisen. "Progress is determined by the individual students who take responsibility for making their own choices. It is an empowering experience for them."
And healthy, personal empowerment is wilderness therapy's ultimate – and lasting – lesson.
To learn more about Adirondack Leadership Expeditions and wilderness therapy programs, click here.