Avery Hunt: Adventure Therapy Helping At-Risk Youths

As an alternate method of therapy, outdoor adventure therapy is ideally suited to help kids in at-risk situations. This method of therapy therapy allows for participants to be physically active as they work through challenges, experiencing the world around them. It has the capabilities to help people from various demographics and with various issues, as it is easily adaptable to a variety of treatment and education methods. This is ideal to help these at-risk youths, also classified as “struggling teens” or “troubled teens” by outdoor adventure therapy companies. These programs are used to help regulate behavioral issues in teenagers to help them achieve “long-term success,” in their lives. For many, this form of therapy is their last resort, when conventional therapy has done nothing for them. These are teenagers and adolescents that have been categorized as being in the “at-risk” category and need either treatment-focused therapy or preventative therapy. At risk of what exactly, depends on who is speaking, but there are two groups of at-risk patients that these outdoor adventure therapy programs tend to focus on.

The first group is primarily adolescents, where the therapy has a preventative focus. It’s meant to target youths that have been identified as being in “at-risk” situations, such as unhealthy living conditions, unstable family structures, or foreboding family history. Historically, since outdoor adventure therapy programs were primarily government-run, the participants were juvenile delinquents seeking an alternative to going to a youth detention center, commonly known as Juvie. In the more modern definition of at-risk and operations of these programs, this method of outdoor adventure therapy isn’t meant to help correct behavioral issues, but rather to stop them before they begin to affect the participants. Teaching healthy coping mechanisms and creating a strong emotional support system for these at-risk adolescents is a large part of what these programs are trying to accomplish.

The second group outdoor adventure therapy targets is teenagers whose behavioral issues are much more clearly present. This is less focused on preventing future issues, but about teaching the patients how to better deal with the issues they’ve already developed. There is special focus on engaging the patients on “behavioral levels” and empowering them. At programs such as Second Chance, the field instructors and staff therapists work together to identify unhealthy patterns in the patients, and they work with the patients to help provide individualized skills to “engage in healthier relationships and behaviors” in their lives. This dual specialty approach combined with the forgiving nature of the outdoor environment they are in helps produce significant and lasting change, giving the patients the ability to internalize “self respect, self-efficacy, and confidence” in their lives after the program.

Outdoor adventure therapy has significant advantages when working with at-risk youths due to its open environment. There is still a strong focus on personal growth, similar to indoor therapy, but there is also an emphasis on “our interdependency as humans” and our fragile relationship with the natural world that encourages empathetic and sympathetic responses by the participants. This connectedness to nature is one of the more qualitative results of outdoor adventure therapy that studies often have a hard time quantifying. It’s not as tangible as increased self-esteem or support systems which may be because we don’t know all that there is to know about it yet. However, it is still an important outcome from this method of therapy, and it’s one with a large effect on the participants.

There’s a large misconception of these programs as simply “playing outdoors” or “boot camp,” but in reality they are much more than that. It is a team of professionals within their areas collaborating to pioneer a new method of helping treat at-risk kids outside of traditional therapy techniques. Places such as Second Nature and WinGate Wilderness Therapy have carefully formulated teams of licensed therapists, psychiatrists, and wilderness experts to formulate and run their programs and expeditions. Many pursue the concept of “clinical integration,” weaving the traditional techniques in with wilderness explorations, rather than making them two separate parts of the day. These programs have responded to remarks from people like Stephen Becker, who called for more attention to be paid to “ethical issues” in adventure based therapy and have pushed for a higher standard of qualifications to work with them and their patients. They design their programs with “intentionality:” a thoughtful and empirical method that includes input from multiple specialists in different areas on their team. Groups such as the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative based out of the University of New Hampshire keep a close eye on these programs, evaluating and regulating them to keep them ethically and scientifically sound.

Outdoor adventure therapy for at-risk kids is the most well thought out and planned branch of the outdoor adventure therapy tree, and that’s why is has the highest value. It was the first branch to exist, and because of that, it has been carefully documented and studied since the 1970’s  allowing for it to be the most developed in both ethics and programming. It serves two different demographics and has evident results. Outdoor adventure therapy has helped at-risk youths in a way that traditional therapy has never managed to, and the scores of testimonials on every programs’ website and the people who gave them are living breathing proof of the value that this method of therapy has for this demographic.