Wilderness Therapy for Teen Addicts

When teens’ struggles with addiction, self-harm and other mental health issues throw them and their families into crisis, the options for treatment can seem daunting at first.

Many factors should be considered, including the rehabilitation needs unique to adolescents.

Would an alternative program be the best form of intervention, or would the local rehab center suffice?

Read on to explore two of the most popular rehabilitation options for teen adicts: wilderness therapy and traditional rehab.

Wilderness Therapy Overview

Wilderness therapy is a broad term that generally describes rehabilitative therapies involving the outdoors. This can encompass outdoor programs such as wilderness experience programs and challenge courses. Although occasionally employed on its own, wilderness therapy is often used in conjunction with traditional rehab as well as other alternative therapies.

While definitions vary, wilderness therapy is often divided into two groups: contained system and continuous-flow system. Contained system therapies last one to three weeks and involve wilderness expeditions with a single dedicated team of therapists. Continuous flow systems last much longer, sometimes as long as two to three months, and involve a single group of clients interacting with more than one group of therapists. In addition, one- to three-day wilderness therapy excursions are sometimes offered at traditional rehab facilities.

The vast majority (70 percent) of wilderness therapy clients are adolescent and young adult men, though young women benefit from this type of therapy as well.

Pros of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy can be an effective rehabilitation solution for troubled teens who have not responded well to traditional rehab, or who may benefit from alternative therapy in addition to rehab. The natural wilderness provides an effective and unique environment for many teens. Constant and unwavering, the challenges found in nature cannot be changed, manipulated or avoided, but rather must be faced and overcome, often with the help of others. In a way, the wilderness itself acts as a therapist. The consequences that teens experience in these programs primarily come from nature, rather than people or society, allowing them to move past any resistance and mistrust that so many teens have toward authority figures that primarily set consequences in a traditional rehab setting.

Traditional inpatient rehab facilities are often a very expensive form of treatment, but wilderness therapy programs are often able to bypass many common expenses, making them more affordable. Unlike a boarding facility, a wilderness program avoids costs including electricity and other utilities, in addition to high rent and building maintenance.

Cons of Wilderness Therapy

Though becoming widely popular as a form of rehabilitation, wilderness therapy does not yet have an official definition, making it hard to determine the different approaches between therapies that fall under this broad term. Some wilderness programs, for example, involve a series of challenges, such as a high-ropes course or horseback riding, while many others are essentially a long backpacking trip.

Traditional Rehab Overview

Unlike wilderness therapy, traditional rehab is a broad term that can include a wide range of long- and short-term programs with many different approaches aimed at helping troubled teens. From the simple outpatient rehab facilities found in just about every city and town to the huge luxury rehab centers visited by teen celebrities, traditional rehabilitation centers can offer help and a great fit to just about any situation.

Outpatient Rehab Programs

Outpatient rehab programs are short-term options that allow the teen to interact deeply in an individual or group setting with a licensed therapist. Sessions can last anywhere from an hour to a day, and may involve family members. As an aftercare option or for teens requiring little intervention, outpatient programs can be a very affordable and effective solution, and are often covered by insurance.

Inpatient Rehab Programs

Offering long-term care, inpatient rehab facility programs often last three months to a year or more. Many of these facilities offer on-site or remote education and learning opportunities, in addition to alternative therapies such as music and horticultural therapy.

Pros of Traditional Rehab

With many teen programs established for decades, traditional rehab programs are well supported by research and widely available in most regions. Because rehab programs for teens are so popular, they are also varied in their approaches. Many therapy options are available, with some facilities offering traditional therapies on site as part of their program.

Traditional rehab programs offer a well-researched and structured environment. While some teens are resistant to this kind of structure, many find that they can thrive, learning life skills such as organization, cleanliness and meal preparation. For long-term care, this same structured environment is very conducive to focusing on academic performance and allowing teen clients to keep up and even excel at their schoolwork rather than fall behind.

Cons of Traditional Rehab

While there is often a rehab center for just about every budget, traditional rehab is generally expensive, and many facilities have waiting lists. While many teens respond very well to these programs, the structured environment and therapeutic approaches may not work for all teens, as some may be better off in an alternative setting.

Choosing A Therapy Program

No matter which type of therapy program seems most appealing, it is important to discuss all possibilities with a counselor or a mental health professional that is familiar with your situation. A professional recommendation can go a long way in finding the best therapy program, or combination of programs, to fit you and your teen’s unique needs.

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One Response to Wilderness Therapy for Teen Addicts

  1. Avatar
    Addiction Staff June 22, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    Hi Robert – you can try looking for a wilderness program at http://www.natsap.org/finding-a-program.

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