Wilderness Therapy Three Phases and Primary Goals
Wilderness therapy is being increasingly used as a last resort intervention for adolescents who are in serious trouble due to alcohol and drug use, sexual promiscuity, trouble with the law, and intense parental conflict. Phone calls of inquiry taken by admissions personnel commonly deal with parents who are in crisis, and in many cases, literally fear for the adolescent’s life. Thus, a high proportion of wilderness therapy admissions occur with a great sense of urgency to intervene before the adolescent self destructs or moves into more serious problem behaviors as an adult.
At Catalyst Xtreme we reconize that there are Three Main Phases of our wilderness therapy program that we deploy our primary goals for treatment they are defined as following: 1) a cleansing phase, which occurs early in the program; 2) a personal and social responsibility phase, a particular emphasis once the cleansing phase is well underway or complete; and 3) transition and aftercare phase. Each of these program goals are reviewed in the following.
1. Cleansing Phase. The initial goal of wilderness treatment is to rid clients of chemical dependencies by removing them from the destructive environments that perpetuated their addictions. The cleansing is accomplished with a minimal but healthy diet, intense physical exercise, and the teaching of basic survival and self care skills. The clients are also removed from the trappings of their former environment including numerous distractions of adolescent culture. The cleansing process is in itself therapeutic and prepares the client for more in-depth work later in the program.
2. Personal and Social Responsibility Phase. After the initial cleansing phase, natural consequences and peer interaction are strong therapeutic influences helping clients to learn and accept personal and social responsibility. Self care and personal responsibility are facilitated by natural consequences in wilderness, not by authority figures, whom troubled adolescents are prone to resist. If they choose not to set up a tarp and it rains, the client gets wet, and there is no one to blame but themselves. If they do not want to make a fire or do not learn to start fires with a bow drill or flint, they will eat raw oats instead of cooked. A goal is to help clients generalize metaphors of self care and natural consequences to real life, often a difficult task for adolescents. For example, adolescents may look at counselors and laugh when told “Stay in school and it will help you get a job.” These long term cause and effect relationships are made more cogent when therapists and wilderness guides point out the personal and interpersonal dynamics of the clients’ wilderness therapy experience to their lives.
3. Transition and Aftercare Phase. Upon completion of the wilderness therapy program, clients must implement their newly learned self-care and personal and social responsibility to either home or a structured aftercare placement. Preparation for this challenge is facilitated by therapists through intense one-on-one and group sessions with peers. If a goal for a client was to “communicate better with parents,” the therapist helps them develop strategies to accomplish this goal. If abstaining from drugs and alcohol is a goal, then the therapist will work with the client to develop a behavior contract and strategy with clear expectations including weekly visits to Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings, and reinforced by regular outpatient counseling sessions. In the five programs we studied (see Table 2), up to 80% of the clients may go to post wilderness therapy placement in a structured aftercare setting, such as a residential mental health facility, drug and alcohol treatment center or an emotional growth boarding school. Follow-up outpatient counseling is recommended for virtually all clients. Thus, while providing for effective intervention, diagnosis and initial treatment, wilderness therapy is not a standalone cure.