Wilderness Treatment: A Journey of Discovery

by Mary Allen and David M. Edwards

When Henry David Thoreau took up residence at Walden Pond, he went in search of an antidote to the pressures of modern living, which caused people to lead "lives of quiet desperation." Since Thoreau's time, the problems associated with life in our society have grown beyond anything he is likely to have imagined. For many people, however, the solution to those problems lies in the combination of personal responsibility, physical challenge and communion with nature that was so productive for Thoreau.

There is a healing power in experiences of this type that goes beyond the relief of everyday stress. Countless people who have experienced serious emotional trauma have been helped by an alternative to traditional therapy known as wilderness treatment. Wilderness treatment combines elements of traditional therapy with physical challenges such as camping and rock climbing to provide a unique healing experience.

"This isn't talk therapy, this is reality therapy, this is experiential therapy," said Daniel Meyers, a nationally recognized authority on wilderness treatment. Wilderness treatment has its roots in the experiential education movement pioneered by Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound (see sidebar).

Although wilderness treatment programs vary in the elements they incorporate, there are some common attributes. They generally involve some kind of peak physical experience - hiking, mountain climbing, etc. And while wilderness therapy can be useful for just about anyone in reasonably good physical health, troubled youths are the most common participants.

Natural Consequences

Central to the growth experienced through wilderness treatment is learning to deal with the consequences of one's own behavior. According to Meyers, "You can't argue with the natural consequence because it's coming from nature. You can not like it, you can complain, but it's what it is." These consequences do not come from a peer, a parent or another authority figure. Learning personal responsibility in this way can open new possibilities for these young people.

"Wilderness programs are a lot about creating the possible out of what was perceived as impossible," Meyers said. "Every time they do something that breaks through their self-limiting beliefs, they get a chance to redefine themselves - redefine their self-image." This process of redefining the self is at the core of most every form of therapy.

A Sense of Community

The desire to belong to a community or family is a fundamental human trait. This desire has been cited as a factor leading some youths into gang involvement. Wilderness treatment programs generally foster a feeling of community among the participants. "People always want to have a sense of belonging," Meyers said. "These kids bond; even if they argue with one another, they still become their own community."

These young people, who are often from inner cities, experience a different reality than what they are accustomed to. "Kids share much more openly when they're out in a natural setting," Meyers said.

The Climbing Wall

In addition to the outdoor element of wilderness treatment, some programs utilize an indoor climbing wall for rock climbing therapy. "Before we do the climbing wall, the kids will assign themselves a task that metaphors what they are dealing with right now in their recovery, and all the kids have to agree that task would be appropriate," said Meyers.

During the climbing wall experience, people with intense, unresolved trauma in their background exhibit a trauma response when they start climbing. Although great care is taken to make the climbing experience as safe as can be, the perception by the climbers that they are doing something life-threatening seems to elicit the trauma response.

"They may start shaking uncontrollably. The image of the actual trauma may pop up, or they may just go blank," Meyers said. "We give them the choice to come down, sit there, or keep climbing." The truly amazing thing, according to Meyers, is that the majority of people "are so tired of feeling not in control that they say no, I want to keep climbing and get this over with. They want to get the trauma behind them."

The Solo Experience

Another element of most wilderness treatment programs is the solo experience. This could be simply putting someone out for a day on a particular plot of land with specific boundaries and conditions, such as not interacting with anyone else. Even in such cases, someone would check on them regularly. Journal writing is usually an important part of the experience - much as it was for Thoreau.

"The hermit is there," Meyers said. "The historic idea of the hermit is someone who is secluding themselves from the external world to ask some very vital questions about themselves and about life. We provide lots of opportunities - journal writing, reflections, solo, one-on-one interviews - that allow them to have time to ask these vital questions."

Managed Care

Wilderness treatment programs have had great success in treating a variety of problems, notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In spite of this record, there can be difficulty with insurance and managed care companies. "They say if you are well enough to be out in the wilderness, then you're well enough not to be in an inpatient treatment program," Meyers said.

One way the treatment programs compromise in order to receive payment is to avoid overnight activities. "We do challenge courses, rock climbing, climbing wall therapy, day hike canyoneering pieces but we don't do anything overnight," Meyers said. "The exact same thing that is happening inside a room is happening on the challenge courses, the climbing wall and in a canyon for a day hike." In this way, the treatment is viewed much like any other inpatient treatment program. "We're still charging as if we're inside a room, and the issues we're dealing with are still the same thing we'd be doing inside a room."

There are currently no mandatory licensing or accreditation requirements for wilderness treatment programs. The only requirements are those made by the insurance companies. There is, however, voluntary accreditation through the Association of Experiential Education.

The Sacred State

The change of perspective brought about by wilderness therapy experiences - accomplishment, responsibility, confronting the pain and finding a way beyond it - all of these lead the participant to a "sacred state." According to Meyers, this is when "all of a sudden a sense of self-acceptance is so much greater - the sense of timelessness, where they really feel that they have done something that is absolutely incredible, very vital in their life."

The challenge then becomes how to take that sacred state back with them when they return to their communities. "That's where the continuing care programs are coming into place," Meyers said. "In a wilderness program we deal with this right off the bat - what are you going to do when you get back?"

Even Thoreau's experience at Walden came to an end after a couple of years. What remains after the time spent in the wilderness is most significant. "The transfer of learning is the most critical piece. We can take anybody and turn them on to a wonderful experience, but it is the transfer of learning - what's going to stick with that person, with that kid - that is the most important."

For further information on wilderness treatment or assistance in finding a suitable program, visit http://www.wilderness-programs.org/

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