What Is Wilderness Therapy?

Does my teen need wilderness therapy? What is wilderness therapy?


Wilderness therapy is an experiential form of therapy that combines outdoor experiences and therapy sessions. If you hired an educational consultant that you paid thousands of dollars for, they likely referred you to a wilderness program for your troubled teenager.


PexelWildernessAlthough 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.


Is your teenager:

-Defiant, disrespectful, rude?
-Vaping, doing drugs, drinking?
-Addicted to their smartphone, video-gaming?
-Refusing to go to school, skipping classes?
-Smart, but failing in school?
Withdrawing from favorite interests?
-Struggling with depression or anxiety?


If you’re experiencing a few of these teen behavior issues, know you’re not alone. 


In 2019 OBH did it’s 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 doesn’t mean it’s the solution, and as the research revealed, the average cost of the wilderness treatment is $27,426 (which is likely 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 also partially funded by Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC).


Another words, short-term program, short-term results. Many parents struggle with financing a residential treatment program without the added expense of the approximate $30K-$50K wilderness program, which many will label as the band-aid. The other factor here is many have already done the hospital stay or out-patient route, in many cases their insurance will cover these types of placements. Health insurance, rarely – if ever, covers wilderness therapy.


What is true with both the traditional treatment of either out-patient or short-term hospital stay and/or if you decided to go the wilderness route — if you have been struggling with your teen for over a year, it’s unlikely these 30-90 day programs will create long lasting behavioral changes.


This is not to say there are many quality wilderness therapy programs in our country. Our organization is about educating parents. Since 2001 we’ve been sharing feedback with families about therapeutic boarding schools and resources for struggling teens across the country. Talking to mothers and fathers that have used wilderness therapy – some that were extremely disappointed and some that had a great experience, however were unaware they had to take another step for success. 


As we explain to parents, it likely didn’t take 4-9 weeks to get to where you are today with your teen’s behavior, it certainly won’t take this amount of time to turn it around.


Quality residential therapy programs (RTC/TBS) are trained to accept teens that are extremely defiant, addicted to their screens, smoking pot or other substances and behavioral issues. There are definitely some situations where wilderness therapy might be a viable option, however typically an RTC will recommend one if they believe your teen is not able to settle into their surroundings.


Wilderness Therapy for the Summer


Are you considering a summer boost for your teen? Wilderness therapy might be right for your teen. If you haven’t had long-term problems with your child, (and have the finances), an outdoor experience could be a way to help your teen gain self-confidence, motivation and time away from their screens. Outward Bound Intercept is a great cost-effective alternative for families — the only difference is kids need to be willing to attend. Whereas in most wilderness programs for troubled teens, they can be professionally transported.


Read: Success Rates for Therapeutic Boarding Schools.

Read: 5 Benefits of Boarding Schools for Troubled Teens.



Learn more about the myths and facts of wilderness therapy. Contact us for a free consultation if you are considering wilderness or any type of residential treatment. For over two decades we’ve been educating parents on quality and safe teen help resources.




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Many parents are at their wit’s end with the challenges of raising teenagers. If you are considering residential therapy, contact us for a free consultation.

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