A Different Approach to Help Troubled Teens

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Mario, a cheerful young boy called “Mr. Sunshine” by his parents, gradually descended into an angry, street-hardened, detached teenager with drug and alcohol problems.

Dan and Hilary, professional therapists themselves, helplessly watched as their once cheerful son transformed into a statistic, a problematic teen. Despite all their professional training and experience, they weren’t able to help him. At their wits’ end, they decided to enroll him in a wilderness intervention program, where he would spend 21 days in the hinterlands of Oregon with five other troubled youths and four counselors.

The Beginnings of Wilderness Therapy and Intervention

Wilderness therapy is nothing new. In the early 20th century it was observed that the outdoors had a positive effect on those with behavioral or mental health problems. For example, the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake severely damaged an asylum, and many of the patients had to live outside in tents. They showed significant improvements in behavior; violent tendencies decreased and there were improvements in getting along peacefully with others. “Tent therapy” became a popular form of treatment on the grounds of asylums.

In the 1950-60s, “adventure therapy” was used to treat psychiatric patients. It was believed that the interaction with small groups in the outdoors was beneficial and effective. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, wilderness programs grew in popularity as an alternative to detention or other forms of treatment for troubled teens. The physically and emotionally demanding regimen in a group setting was seen to bring positive benefits.

Why It Helps

What are the benefits of wilderness therapy and intervention? There are many, but among the main ones are:

  • Setting goals as individuals and groups
  • Physical activity
  • Trust building
  • Adapting to challenges and stress
  • Problem solving
  • Fun

Those in a wilderness intervention program spend time with the group, but also have time alone to think and reflect. Counselors foster a caring, non-confrontational environment. The strenuous activity and natural scenery are physically refreshing and psychologically cathartic. As they work within a group dynamic, make decisions, cope with an unfamiliar environment, and master wilderness skills, participants’ feelings of control return and they build self-esteem. Patterns of antisocial behavior start to change into trust and cooperation. The entire experience contributes to emotional growth and social responsibility.

The Results

Mario, mentioned earlier, remained angry throughout most of his wilderness intervention program. But after a three-day solo experience – a time of complete isolation and introspection – and an additional eight-day trek, Mario’s attitude began to change. He apologized to his parents for the pain and suffering he had caused them, and they began to communicate for the first time in years. A year after the treatment, he was still doing well and working at a computer job, which he loves. His mother says that she finally has her son back.

In : Health

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