Are Teen Wilderness Programs Successful?

Have you been struggling with your troubled teen, are they defiant, become destructive at home, refusing to go to school, gone from an excellent student to barely passing? Maybe they started using drugs or drinking? Now you have an educational consultant or someone referring you to wilderness therapy or a wilderness program?

You may have done a quick internet search to find out these programs will cost you about $500 to $800 per day and that doesn’t include your equipment or transportation to the program. Most of these adventures run about 90 days — that’s an average of about $60,000 and you haven’t started the process of long lasting behavioral changes “yet.” The most troubing part is, most insurances (even PPO) will not cover wilderness therapy.

Are Wilderness Programs Successful?

Reality is, we have yet to see any third-party research or independent study that is not funded by a school, program or organization that is not part of this industry. Another words, a study that would not have reason to be bias.

For example, although the wilderness therapy industry (OBH – Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare) has tried for several decades to fill research gaps to bolster its case of effectiveness and reduce the need for legislative intervention, science still does not support wilderness therapy. Therapeutic wilderness programs have no outcome data to support the effectiveness of these programs, and particularly the long-term effects of these interventions.

In 2019 OBH did its own research to say that wilderness therapy was effective and less expensive than traditional treatment such as short-term hospital stay or out-patient services. Although in this research the results claim it to be effective — it does not mean it’s the solution, and as the research revealed, the average cost of the wilderness treatment is $27,426 (which is higher now) — not including the cost of equipment.

Interestingly this study was partially funded by National Association for Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), which collects fees for membership from wilderness programs, as well as other teen help schools that want their logo on their websites and partially funded by Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC).

Myths and facts of wilderness programs

Myth: Many parents are led to believe that the majority of quality residential programs won’t accept a teen that hasn’t completed a wilderness program. That simply is not true. 

Myth: Any teen that is using drugs needs to do a wilderness first. This is absolutely not true.

Myth: All teens do wilderness first, if not they won’t succeed. My educational consultant said so. Again, absolutely not true.

Fact: Wilderness programs are not necessary to enter a many quality therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers.

Fact: Wilderness programs are an expensive band-aid. They will cost a family from $500-800 per day and the duration is about 4-9 weeks. The fact is — long lasting behavioral changes can’t take place in short-term programs. This is why the majority of students that attend wilderness programs transition on to a residential boarding school.

Consider this, it didn’t take 4-9 weeks to get to where you are today, it’s certainly not going to take 4-9 weeks to reverse that behavior – and have it stick!

In interviewing parents, since 2001, that have used wilderness programs – the feedback has been consistent. Although many students have good experiences – it was never enough to change behavior. If they had it to do over – they would opt-out and go straight to residential therapy.

Fact: Teens need consistency. Program hopping is not beneficial to anyone (except the programs that are being paid – and the professional you are paying). Finding the one residential setting that can offer your teen long-lasting changes is likely best for the entire family. In many cases, they also have parenting workshops that bring the entire family back-together.

Be an educated parent, you will make wiser and better financial decisions for your family and teenager.

Also read:

Why Therapeutic Boarding Schools are Effective

5 Benefits of Boarding Schools for Troubled Teens

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