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Wilderness Therapy

Do you enjoy adventure activities? Then wilderness therapy may be the right option for you. During these therapy sessions, you’ll learn more about yourself through fun and challenging activities in a natural setting. Support from mental health professionals and your peers helps to facilitate the healing process.

Wilderness Therapy: What is it?

Wilderness therapy uses adventure activities as part of the therapeutic process. You can expect to be engaged cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally if you visit a mental health professional who uses this type of therapy. Instead of going through a therapeutic process indoors, you’ll learn how to overcome unhelpful psychological patterns amongst stunning natural scenery. Hiking and camping are some of the activities that you’ll be involved in during wilderness therapy programs. This type of therapy helps you to identify the problems that you are facing while facilitating the development of the coping strategies that you need to overcome them. The wilderness experience is designed to boost self-esteem as well as to cultivate hope for the future.

Wilderness therapy is typically carried out over longer programs which can have a duration of one month to a year. While the longer programs have a range of benefits, there are also shorter sessions available. You can choose to complete a week program or to attend a wilderness therapy session for a day. Morning sessions are also available for people who have limited time.

Wilderness Therapy Theory

Wilderness theory combines traditional psychology with wilderness experiences. Mental health professionals offer psychological support while the outdoor setting provides a unique environment for healing.

How Does Wilderness Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?

Wilderness theory suggests that when the mind encounters problems in an unfamiliar context, it facilitates the development of new ways of thinking. In this type of therapy wilderness experiences and team building are used to challenge unhelpful beliefs with the aim of transforming them. Completing group activities in nature and under the guidance of a mental health practitioner helps you to develop new coping strategies, problem-solving capabilities, and interpersonal skills. Surviving outdoors teaches you the skills that you need to face challenges with more confidence in your everyday life.

How Does Wilderness Therapy Cause Change?

One of the reasons that wilderness therapy is so effective is because it allows for deep levels of trust to develop between you and your mental health professional. The sessions promote openness and honesty which allows you to gain an in-depth understanding of yourself as well as your family. Another aspect of this therapy, which is conducive to psychological healing, is that you can’t escape from your problems in this setting. In the wilderness, you’ll have less access to avoidance behaviors and you’ll have a higher level of support from your therapist and peers. This set-up helps to dissolve defensive barriers and it promotes healing. The physical activity and healthy food also support the therapeutic process. Wilderness therapy causes change by giving you the empowering experience of surviving in the wild, which boosts self-esteem. Working in a fun and non-pathologizing environment is beneficial as it allows you to discover your skills and resources.

What Happens in a Wilderness Therapy Session?

Wilderness therapy starts with an assessment by a mental health professional. This initial assessment allows the therapist to customize the sessions to meet your requirements as well as to place you in a group with people who have similar mental health challenges. Peer support is an important part of the wilderness therapy process. This process plays a role in gaining an in-depth understanding of the challenges that you are facing and the issues that are underlying your mental health challenges. During the individual sessions, your therapist will help you to identify your values so that you can live in accordance with these values. You’ll have the opportunity to examine your negative choices and to identify the needs that are underlying these unhelpful decisions. During the sessions, your therapist will assist you to learn how you can meet these needs with choices that honor your values.

During group sessions, you’ll discover how to processes your personal issues as well as to deal with group and family dynamics. Group sessions can also cover a range of useful topics, such as effective communication and emotional regulation. During these sessions, you can give support to the other members of your group and receive their support in return. This process helps you to learn to build healthy relationships.

Techniques Used in Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy involves group activities which are overseen by mental health professionals. As other people start to open up and discuss their problems, it can help you to talk about issues that you’ve never talked about before. Positive feedback from the group for sharing helps to build trust and to create an environment that helps people to open up. During these sessions, you can expect mental health professionals to monitor how you’re managing your experiences so that they can support you when it’s appropriate. This process allows you to talk about your emotions and challenges as they occur so that you can develop coping strategies. The outcome is the ability to rely on yourself and an improved self-confidence as well as the ability to ask people for support when it’s required. Wilderness therapy techniques help you to learn more about yourself as well as to improve your relationships with others and to improve your social skills.

Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Since its inception wilderness therapy has continued to progress and research shows that wilderness therapy works. Over the past decade, there have been significant developments in the quality of the wilderness therapy that is being offered with empirical evidence to support its effectiveness.

Wilderness Therapy

What Kinds of Concerns is Wilderness Therapy Best For?

Wilderness therapy is suitable for teenagers who are suffering from mental health issues or substance abuse. This type of therapy also has benefits for young adults who are transitioning to a new life stage. Wilderness therapy is effective when used as a family intervention. This therapy can be useful for people who have been diagnosed with ADD, OCD or Asperger’s syndrome. It’s also useful for the treatment of anxiety, depression and eating disorders. If you’re suffering from trauma, wilderness therapy can help you to heal.  While a range of age groups can benefit from this therapy, its main focus is on assisting at-risk teenagers as well as young adults.

How Are Wilderness Therapy Specialists Trained?

Wilderness therapists are mental health professionals who have undergone specialized training. Licensed Psychologists can complete a Wilderness Therapy Specialist Certificate which equips them with the tools that they need to use wilderness experiences as part of the healing process. These certifications include outdoor leadership, risk management, and psychological components. The training also includes practical components in a range of adventure activities, such as mountain biking and kayaking.

Concerns/Limitations of Wilderness Therapy

The safety risks associated with the adventure activities that are part of this therapy make it important to choose a program that upholds high safety standards. Outdoor treatment programs with unqualified staff that have a boot camp approach have put people at risk in the past. This makes it essential to check that the treatment that you sign up for is run by qualified mental health professionals who are overseeing a program that has a good reputation.

Another limitation of wilderness therapy is that returning to negative family dynamics can impede the progress that has been made during the program. It’s important to receive support after you’ve completed the program and many wilderness therapists offer this service. Wilderness therapy programs can come with a high price tag which is a limiting factor for many people who are facing mental health challenges.

While there is evidence that wilderness therapy works, it’s not for everyone. The physical and emotional demands of this type of therapy mean that it may not be a suitable for young children or elderly people. Physical disabilities may limit people from participating in wilderness therapy. Likewise, it may not be a suitable option for people who are suffering from severe mental illnesses, which includes dementia and schizophrenia.

Important Practitioners in Wilderness Therapy

Madolyn M. Liebing, Ph.D. is one of the pioneers in the wilderness therapy industry. She played an important role in combining clinical therapy and youth wilderness experiences. Dr. Liebing initially used wilderness experiences in her role as a high school teacher and counselor. She found that these outdoor activities were useful in decreasing the dropout rates of her students. Dr. Liebing went on to train as a Licensed Psychologists and she founded the Wilderness Academy. She was instrumental in developing educational and therapeutic materials for wilderness programs. Dr. Liebing works in private practice with underprivileged youth and she is the Clinical Director of the Journey programs.

How to Find a Therapist

When you’re looking for a wilderness therapist it’s important not to confuse programs that are run by licensed mental health professionals with outdoor experience activities. You can ask your GP or a mental health professional that you trust if they can recommend reputable wilderness therapy programs. Another option is to run a google search which should generate a range of results.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

When you’re looking for a wilderness therapy program it’s important to check that it’s run by licensed mental health professionals who have experience treating your specific mental health condition. You’ll also need to check that the cost and duration of the program matches your requirements. Look at the services that are offered during the program to assess whether they meet your unique needs or not. It’s advisable to use the services of a therapist who offers follow up support after you have completed the program.

There should be a clearly defined operational structure in place to ensure your safety during the program. It’s advisable to look for a program that has good quality equipment which meets your requirements. Make sure that you use the services of a wilderness therapist who upholds high ethical and safety standards. Conduct research to make sure that no complaints have been laid against them before you book a session. You can also check online to see if the therapist has received any negative reviews.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

  • What qualification and training do you have?
  • Are you a licensed mental health professional?
  • Do you have experience working with clients who are facing the same mental health concern as me?
  • What follow-up support is offered after I complete the program?
  • What risks are involved with wilderness therapy?
  • What safety measures do you have in place?
  • What is the duration of the program?

Wilderness therapy offers you an engaging and unique experience that helps you to overcome the mental health challenges that you are facing. Therapeutic support from a mental health professional combined with wilderness experiences gives you a new perspective on life and allows you to develop coping strategies. Not only does this type of therapy teach you how to make better choices in life, it also helps you to heal from traumatic experiences.

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brainstorm/201712/why-wilderness-therapy-works
  2. https://www.openskywilderness.com/therapy/
  3. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/09/therapy-wild.aspx
  4. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/wilderness-therapy
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilderness_therapy
  6. https://journeyprograms.wordpress.com/about/
  7. https://wildernessfoundation.org.uk/wilderness-therapy/
  8. http://www.academia.edu/366291/Many_Paths_To_Becoming_An_Adventure_Therapist

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