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Wilderness therapy is a controversial mental health and addiction treatment that uses expeditions into the wilderness. Wilderness therapy can be also described as “outdoor behavioral healthcare”, “challenge courses”, “adventure-based therapy”, and “wilderness experience programs”. During wilderness therapy, patients spend time living outdoors with peers. Most participants attend involuntarily. Reports of abuse, deaths, and lack of research have led to controversy. Wilderness therapy is most often used for at-risk adolescents, but it is also used for adults, families, and couples.

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Wilderness therapy may be helpful with mental health conditions such as:

Wilderness therapy can help with issues like low self-esteem, avoidance, defiance, and impulsive, reckless, or rebellious behavior.


Wilderness therapy has quite a rocky history. One of the most common criticisms of wilderness therapy is that the programs may not be able to provide the level of care that they claim. Many patients report that wideness therapy was a life-changer. But, a few abusive situations have been reported and several patients have died in wilderness therapy programs. Many participants also say that they are left with lifelong trauma from the experience. Due to the trauma and alleged harm reported by former wilderness program residents who have been forcibly escorted into placement, psychologists have heavily criticized this approach as inappropriate, and grossly inconsistent with establishing the necessary trust required for building a therapeutic relationship between youth and providers.


Wilderness therapy provides an environment for self-discovery. Individuals who find a therapist and engage in wilderness therapy are often guided through an examination of maladaptive behaviors that contribute to negative circumstances in their lives. Through the use of wilderness expeditions, primitive skills training (such as primitive fire starting), and team-building exercises, disruptive or unproductive beliefs and views may be challenged and possibly transformed.

Wilderness therapy is modeled to mimic the challenges and pressures found within family and social structures but delivers them in an atmosphere free from negative influences. Youths learn how to develop healthy relationships, live within boundaries, and accept and process feedback while relying on their own sense of inner wisdom and strength. Additionally, participants are often required to forge alliances with other youths for self-preservation or task completion. By doing this, the participants develop self-confidence, communication skills, cooperative skills, and trust.

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Like wilderness experience programs, wilderness therapy uses outdoor activities and unfamiliar environments to help participants enjoy a unique experience and build positive character traits. Many program activities take place in a group setting in order to encourage communication, cooperation, and trust between group members. Reflective activities are used to help participants process the experience and highlight what they learned.

In addition to the above factors though, wilderness therapy programs possess certain unique characteristics. For example, in contrast to wilderness experience programs, wilderness therapy programs are:

  • Licensed by a state agency.
  • Overseen by a licensed mental health professional who works with participants in individual or group sessions.
  • Able to provide individualized treatment plans which are regularly monitored by licensed mental health professionals.
  • Able to conduct an evaluation of treatment effectiveness.


Cost, duration, intensity, frequency of activities, licensure of the people directing the program, educational opportunities, range of services offered, and post-graduation follow-up are just some of the factors that need to be considered.

A growing concern is that some wilderness experience programs may falsely market their services as wilderness therapy. In other words, these wilderness programs advertise themselves to be therapeutic. Although in many programs, licensed mental health personnel are not employed to work directly with participants. Consider these suggestions below:

  • Choose safe programs.
    • Ensure that a defined operational structure is in place.
    • Ensure that the staff and available equipment meet your needs.
    • Check to ensure the staff is educated, licensed, trained, or experienced in carrying out necessary services. For example, if a staff member is providing psychotherapy, they should be properly licensed to do so.
  • Make a weighted balanced decision.
    • Knowing the challenges you, or your child if they are the ones in need of services, are facing will help you have a better idea of the type of equipment and personnel that should be available during treatment.
    • Before making a final decision, it may be helpful to seek advice from a mental health professional that is knowledgeable in wilderness therapy.
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At Overland Intensive Outpatient, our philosophy is to help treat mental health by uncovering the underlying causes and addressing the co-occurring disorders which could drive the individual to relapse. We understand that every person who enters our doors comes with unique needs and goals. Our experienced clinicians will work one-on-one with clients to develop a comprehensive treatment plan using evidence-based methods. Overland Intensive Outpatient is ready to provide both in-person and virtual care (telehealth services) to expand access to essential health services and meet the health needs of our patients.

If you need FREE help please contact the National Helpline about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, treatment, and recovery in English and Spanish.

Published: May 01, 2022

Last Updated: May 25, 2022


Natalia Golenkova

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