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Finding Sanity and Sobriety in Wilderness Therapy

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

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For young men who are suffering from dangerous patterns of behavior such as substance abuse, a variety of treatment programs exist. These programs exist to help get them on track so they can continue reaching for important educational and career goals. 

They can also help young men whose antisocial behavior has begun to harm relationships with family members, friends, and other loved ones. While traditionally treatment programs have been of two types, inpatient and outpatient, a new style of treatment program has recently come into vogue: therapeutic wilderness programs.

Mental Health Issues Among Young Adults

According to the American Psychological Organization, mental health issues are on the rise. This is especially true among young people, for whom the last decade has seen a dramatic increase in mental health disorders. These cognitive and mood problems include major depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and attention deficit disorder.

Researchers attribute this increase to cultural trends associated with technology. Electronic communication and social media have completely changed how people interact and see themselves, resulting in isolation and unrealistic expectations. 

Technology influences many other important factors for mental and emotional health. For example, the blue light emitted by computer screens disrupts circadian rhythm and harms people’s sleep cycles. While mental health problems can be treated in civilized society, for many people it is beneficial to step outside the confines of the city and get some perspective.

Benefits of the Wilderness Environment

Research published by Harvard Medical School shows that simply going for a walk in nature stimulates a dramatic improvement in mood. It stands to reason that a treatment program emphasizing living in nature continuously would have even more powerful effects. 

In fact, research on young people with substance abuse problems and comorbid mental health problems shows that wilderness therapy programs made them markedly more resilient to substance abuse.

Sobriety In Wilderness Therapy Programs For Adults

It is crucial to make a distinction between wilderness therapy programs and adventure therapy. Adventure therapy also takes place outdoors but involves thrilling goal-oriented activities in which participants take on some degree of risk. 

Wilderness therapy, on the other hand, is a kind of experiential education in which the security of those involved is essential. Safely living in and interacting with the natural environment is an important backdrop for the self-exploration and skill-development with wilderness therapy programs provide.

Wilderness therapy programs incorporate a number of treatment modalities. Many involve expeditions in which participants work to develop basic survival skills. In doing so, they develop a sense of teamwork, self-confidence, and adaptability. Some combine this with other evidence-based treatments, including but not limited to:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Equine therapy

Choosing a Wilderness Therapy Program

Not all wilderness programs are therapy. Before selecting a program to treat mental health problems or addiction, it is wise to first do some research. Make sure the program is accredited, has a proper organizational structure in place, and has a staff that is properly trained. 

Talk to them about their therapeutic methodology. Being in nature is inherently beneficial, but if you are suffering from addiction, it is important to enroll in a program that can specifically treat your unique needs.

The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council is an organization that works tirelessly to set standards for wilderness-based treatment programs. Families seeking help for their troubled teenager can trust programs that have been accredited by the OBH Council. The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council also funds and publishes research on the effects of outdoor therapy for young adults with substance abuse problems. 

Their research has shown that the positive effects of these programs aren’t merely a result of teenagers losing access to drugs and alcohol. The OBH also works with program directors to make sure they are continually updating their programs to conform to cutting edge evidence-based treatment methods.

After the Return Home

Recovery from addiction and comorbid mental health disorders is a lifelong process. Young men who get help early in wilderness therapy programs are taking a great first step. 

However, they should understand that those who stay in sober living homes longer have a far lower chance of relapsing. Sober living homes like Design for Recovery offer an amazing opportunity to anyone who has recently graduated from a wilderness therapy program. Instead of returning to a solitary life in the city after leaving nature, young adults can come together at Design for Recovery to continue to build a foundation for sobriety

Design for Recovery works with people of all ages to develop important interpersonal, self-care, and career skills that help recovering addicts rebuild their lives from the ground up.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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