Wilderness Drug Rehab Programs
Wilderness recovery programs exist for a range of populations. But they are most commonly used as an intervention for “troubled teens.”2 They take place in remote outdoor settings and are used to treat a number of clinical issues.1 These programs are typically sought by people that do not respond to traditional treatments.2 They are also known as outdoor behavioral health, nature therapy, or outdoor therapy programs.
The programs are often emotionally intense and physically demanding, and they are designed to help with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. In fact, research indicates that addiction has become the most frequently documented clinical issue for which people seek wilderness rehab treatment.4
Insurance may not cover these programs, so people may need to pay out of pocket. Some programs may offer payment plans and financial aid or scholarships.
What Is a Wilderness Recovery Program?
Wilderness recovery programs are a type of outdoor clinical treatment typically targeted to high-risk adolescents and young adults (13-24 years old) that display physical, mental, behavioral/emotional, and/or substance abuse issues.3 While in the program, participants may experience different forms of nature therapy and life skills training.
Wilderness rehab program goals are individualized based on the person’s specific needs.
Physical goals in wilderness therapy programs may include:1-3
- Weight loss.
- Treatment for unhealthy body composition.
Mental health/behavioral goals may include treatment for:1-3
- Conduct disorder.
- Oppositional defiant disorder.
- Substance abuse.
- Eating disorders.
Emotional goals may include learning new tools to:1,2
- Improve social relations.
- Develop a sense of personal responsibility.
- Build resilience and self-reliance.
- Raise confidence levels.
Standard wilderness therapy programs follow a structured format. Some basic program guidelines are as follows:2,3
- Participants are carefully selected based on clinical assessment.
- Participants receive a treatment plan based on individual goals.
- Participants take part in individual and group therapy sessions led by qualified professionals, such as psychologists, clinical social workers, and clinical mental health counselors.
- Programs periodically assess participants’ progress.
Electronic devices, such as cell phones and computers, are usually not permitted in wilderness drug rehab programs,3 and most programs are co-ed.6 Participants spend an extended period of time outdoors engaging in nature therapy and other activities such as survival skills training. Group living and the natural environment provide a “classroom” for troubled teens to learn life skills and manage mental health symptoms.1
Wilderness recovery program activities may include:1
- Setting up a camp.
- Learning healthy lifestyle habits.
- Building a fire.
- Going on nature expeditions.
- Participating in adventure therapy.
- Constructing shelter.
- Keeping up with academics.
- Participating in group and individual therapy.
- Taking part in psycho-education groups.
The length of stay in wilderness drug rehab programs is typically 8 to 10 weeks depending on the program requirements and the clinical recommendations for each person.6 Some programs have a minimum stay requirement, and some offer supplemental education for parents, such as consulting and intervention training.
Upon completion of a wilderness recovery program, the staff may create an aftercare plan to transition the person back into daily life and to help maintain recovery. Medical staff and treatment team providers develop a person’s ongoing treatment/discharge plan by discussing the person’s needs and then coordinating the services.1
Post-wilderness rehab aftercare plans may include:5
- Residential treatment.
- Boarding school.
- Outpatient clinical treatment services, such as group or individual counseling.
- A sober living or recovery home.
- Family therapy sessions.
- Couple or co-parenting classes for parents.
- 12-step meetings.
- Random drug testing.
- Service projects and/or employment opportunities.
- Daily structure and routine.
Some programs recommend that roughly 95% of their graduates continue treatment in a long-term residential setting.5
Vetting a Program
You may have questions when choosing the right wilderness drug rehab program. If you or someone you love is interested in wilderness therapy programs, and you are researching your options, here are some helpful questions to ask:
- What are your admission criteria?
- What are the costs? What do the costs cover?
- Are you licensed and accredited? If so, by what agencies?
- What are the credentials of the staff that will be working with my child, and how much experience do they have?
- Do you conduct background checks on all staff members?
- Can my child complete schoolwork while in the program?
- Do you have medical staff to deal with injuries or other emergencies?
- What are your discipline procedures?
- What is expected of the parents during the program?
- How is my child’s progress assessed?
- Do you provide aftercare?
If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health issues and/or a substance abuse disorder, call our support specialists at 1-888-968-9816 Who Answers? for more information about wilderness therapy program options.
- Tucker, A., Norton, C., DeMille, S., & Hobson, J. (2016). The impact of wilderness therapy: Utilizing an integrated care approach. Journal of Experiential Education, 39(1), 15-30.
- Clark, J., Marmol, L., Cooley, R., & Gathercoal, K. (2004). The effects of wilderness therapy on the clinical concerns (on Axes I, II, and IV) of troubled adolescents. Journal of Experiential Education, 27(2), 213-232.
- Bettmann, J., Russell, K., & Parry, K. (2013). How substance abuse recovery skills, readiness to change and symptom reduction impact change processes in wilderness therapy participants. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22(1), 1039-1050.
- Russell, K. C., Gillis, H. L., & Lewis, T. G. (2008). A five-year follow up of a survey of North American outdoor behavioral healthcare programs. Journal of Experiential Education, 31, 55–77.
- Bolt, K. (2016). Descending from the summit: Aftercare planning for adolescents in wilderness therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy, 38, 62-74.
- American Psychological Association. (2017). Therapy gone wild.