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Nature as healer: Wilderness experience programs and wilderness therapy with adolescents

24 July 2009


Wilderness programs are an innovative approach to treating the problems of adolescents, a notoriously difficult population for mental health providers to work with. Although much research has been done on wilderness programs, many questions remain unanswered. One of these questions has to do with whether wilderness therapy (WT) programs, with their added traditional therapy component, tend to produce different results than more general wilderness experience programs (WEPs), which do not integrate a traditional therapy component. Knowing if these types of programs differ in their effectiveness is important, as it can guide the decisions of consumers and program developers, and because of the impact such programs might have on curtailing adolescent problems before they worsen. In this paper, research on wilderness programs from 1996 until the present is examined in two comprehensive literature reviews--one focusing on WEPs and one on WT programs. The studies are then quantified according to overall outcome, research method utilized, population type, and types of outcomes measured. Although results from a few studies indicated negative outcomes for select individuals, none of the studies produced overall negative outcomes; therefore, program results were categorized as either positive or neutral/mixed. Contrary to what might be expected, a higher proportion of studies on WEPs indicated positive results. Reasons for this counterintuitive finding are discussed, and directions for future research on wilderness programs are suggested.


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