Let’s Have a Hard Conversation about Wilderness
I would like to start with this disclaimer: I am a believer in academics and research – someone who wants to see the proof in the pudding. Today, I’m writing this from the perspective of a mother and a therapist who has seen a lot, where my personal experience and emotion can also enter in the equation. I hope to use this is as an opportunity where you might read things that you wouldn’t in the research - because it’s candid, human, and from the heart.
My hope for this is to say some hard things to anyone hoping to gain insight into what it’s really like to be a wilderness therapist, and to offer a window into the things we tell parents on the first few calls.
When I was considering what might be a useful topic, I kept coming back to the same thing. I can’t sit here and pretend that the most useful conversation would be about clinical depression or suicidality, without acknowledging that the form of treatment (wilderness) I have found to be the most effective, compassionate, and long-term solution for families is being disparaged by some. The other day on the online parent support group, I heard all of the parents agree that they wish they had known about wilderness before going through [several] other interventions that didn’t work. They shared that if it wasn’t for the family work at Evoke they would still be at square-one on their journey with their child. It’s conversations like this you won’t read about on the internet. The truth is, a hopeful energy is completely different than the spiteful, hopeless energy you will find on the world wide web. I get letters from my alumni students writing to current students saying, “Please know that I’m okay, and I’m doing really well. There is hope.” While those stories of hope are common, they are just a part of what happens out there, they are sparsely shared where only drama, anger, and fear sells.
I have been in this field for 15 years, and this is the first time I have taken the time to write about the significance of wilderness.
I left wilderness to work in other settings during graduate school to consider again the belief that I held that wilderness therapy was so profoundly effective. I asked myself the hard question, “Is this really as good as you think, or are you biased?” I worked in jails, at a crisis center, in a women’s shelter, and a well-known adventure therapy program that is a powerhouse for healing and research in local communities. I really wanted to believe that what I was doing was as effective. The truth is, the adolescents who I worked with would come for group 1 hour a week and go back into their old family-system and group of friends; nothing I could do in an hour would change the powerful pull of their everyday environments. I will never forget one day when I saw a group of boys run out from the main jail door onto the grass and feel the sun on their face and wind hit their body. I can still see this one boy’s face as he looked up to the sky at the clouds as he was running. It was a joy that brought me to tears and to this day is unmatched. Then, I had to lead them back inside after they had been climbing outside for two hours. After that episode, I didn’t see them again for a month - not much had changed for them.
Here is the hard truth that I have to tell parents at times: The pain of sending your child to wilderness will be far less than visiting them in jail or at their funeral. Further, the compassion that they get from the groups around the fire, the hope they will feel as they gaze at the night’s stars, and the non-judgment they experience from the guides who don’t see them as “the problem” is more impactful for their healing than in any other place I have worked. Let’s be honest, when a student goes to Juvenile detention, they do not get a beautiful welcome ceremony.
For some parents, to make the choice of utilizing wilderness, it is sometimes one of life or death for their child. It’s that one last suicide attempt, that one last drunken car crash, or that last arrest.
In the case of Wilderness Therapy, I sometimes have parents who comment on how rough the environment seems before enrolling their child.
So, let’s just name it: Yes, wilderness can be hard. There will undoubtably be moments of struggle. Their hands will get dirty, and they will have to pee and poop outside. They will learn to cook their own food with the guidance of other students and guides. They will have chores like cleaning their pots and pans. There will be moments where they have to dig deep and challenge themselves emotionally and physically. They will carry backpacks on some hikes.
They cannot hide from struggle here. This is one of the reasons why it is the most intense and effective intervention. That’s why our guides are heavily vetted to provide the emotional support that’s needed in those moments.
In my undergraduate studies I saw this quote on a friend’s wall,
"Travel breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. Stripped of our props, deprived of our masks, we are completely on the surface of ourselves."
- Albert Camus
I have found that this same phenomenon is what happens when a student comes to wilderness. They are unable to turn away from the pain or struggles: no screens, no drugs, no TikTok. It’s a small group of people in which they come face to face with interpersonal relationships that mimic the home environment and relationships. They get a mirror held up that is honest – there is nowhere to hide. This process is incredibly difficult, and the amount of compassion that the guides must provide is immense. The unique blend of a group experience, the inability to hide, and the compassion from guides is what I have found to be completely different from any other form of help that is offered to teens. I will also never forget the day an inner-city girl said to me her first week, “I have never felt peace before. It’s so quiet. I didn’t know that was possible.”
Now, the elephant in the room…
Here are some facts that I think need to be said:
1) Abuse is much more likely to happen in a program with closed doors, or in jails. In jails, it is frequent. In the 15 years of working in this field, I have never worked for a wilderness program who has had a case of physical or mental abuse. That says a lot.
2) Wilderness is under the microscope more than most any other in-patient setting because of the recent movement, Breaking Code Silence. For this, I am grateful. We are all grateful.
3) Wilderness therapy is licensed and supervised by the state, and this includes surprised visits, audits, interviews of current clients, and reviewed on a number of incidents required by the state licensing body. If there is a complaint or incident, we are investigated by the state usually within days.
4) Our guides pass background checks and are never left alone with a student. We must have two pairs of eyes on a student at any given time.
If I am to be candid as a mother, I would send my child to wilderness before most any other form of treatment if I were worried about their safety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to programs and ask to speak to alumni parents, current therapists, etc. Ask the hard questions. We are here for them.
If you would like some research on wilderness, here are some articles for you. I understand that matters, too.
Bettmann, J.E., Russell, K.C. & Parry, K.J. How Substance Abuse Recovery Skills, Readiness to Change and Symptom Reduction Impact Change Processes in Wilderness Therapy Participants. J Child Fam Stud 22, 1039–1050 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-012-9665-2
Clark, J. P., Marmol, L. M., Cooley, R., & Gathercoal, K. (2004). The Effects of Wilderness Therapy on the Clinical Concerns (on Axes I, II, and IV) of Troubled Adolescents. Journal of Experiential Education, 27(2), 213-232. https://doi.org/10.1177/105382590402700207
Joanna E. Bettmann, Gabrielle M. Kouris, Ileana M. Anderson & Bryan Casselman (2021) Wilderness as Healing Environment: Treating Adolescent Substance Misuse in Wilderness Therapy, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 74:1, 249-264, DOI: 10.1080/00797308.2020.1859270