Wilderness Therapy Provides Inconsistent Outcomes Among Youth

According to a recent study conducted by Michele Lariviere, clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Canada, the results achieved through wilderness therapy continue to be varied and difficult to gauge. Wilderness therapy (WT) is an alternative therapeutic approach that can be useful in helping individuals who do not respond to traditional treatment methods. Primarily, WT is designed to address behavioral problems and is becoming more popular because it appeals to at-risk teens who are unable to make progress through psychotherapy or other means of treatment. Because therapists can observe behaviors and reactions over the course of several days and during a variety of situations, WT can provide insight into domains that might not be explored in an office environment. Additionally, young adults and teens who are fearful of the stigma associated with mental health problems and how they may be perceived by their peers may choose not to accept help when offered. Self-esteem and image often trump positive mental health for young people conflicted about their identity and self-worth.

One of the biggest challenges of WT is the conflicting outcomes that have been reported by therapists. Existing research has provided differing outcomes, which leaves clinicians wondering if and how this type of treatment can help their clients. Lariviere’s goal was to gather outcome measures from three therapists after they observed a week-long session of WT delivered to nine teens ranging in age from 15 to 18 years in order to establish some degree of consistency. However, this result was not achieved. Lariviere said, “Even when equipped with validated and behaviorally anchored instruments, there appears to be little consistency among observers in terms of the degree to which WT influences participant change.” In sum, the three clinicians reported significantly varying degrees of gains in the youth. These findings support other research that has established a wide range of observer outcomes in WT. Taken together, the results of this study and others suggests that more research is needed in order to develop a valid tool that can be used in various WT settings with a broad range of clients in order to accurately assess the effectiveness of treatment.

Lariviere, M., Couture, R., Ritchie, S. D., Cote, D., Oddson, B. (2012). Behavioural assessment of wilderness therapy participants: Exploring the consistency of observational data. The Journal of Experiential Education, 35.1, 290-302.

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  • Greenwich


    June 8th, 2012 at 8:40 PM

    Well what dies wilderness therapymostoy include? Outdoor therapy? Or nature based?

    And moreover such a small base for a study is insufficient if you ask me.

  • mac


    June 9th, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    I worked in a camp like this for about two years after I graduated from college. And yeah, the results were varied depending on the groups that I worked with. But I would argue that there are not ever going to be truly consistent results across the board with any type of therapy. What works for some is not always going to work for another. Right? I think that’s fair to say. Yes some of the guys responded better than others and have probably had better outcomes over the years than some of my guys did. But I think that no matter the long term results, every one that I worked with in some way got something positive out of the experience and I don’t think that can be discounted.

  • Melanie


    June 9th, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    I have always been a little wary of any form of camp like this that promises so much to the parents but that in the end they get so little in return. For the most part the kids that these camps are geared toward are the kids who are not going to want to be there in the first place. And if this is not something that is done long term then the chances that this one stint at wilderness camp will make a huge difference in their lives is pretty slim. I know that maybe it could take them out of the environment that was causing them trouble, but is it really making the sorts of changes that will be lasting? According to the research here, apparently not.

  • eliza s

    eliza s

    June 10th, 2012 at 5:37 AM

    My brother and sister in law sent my nephew to a wilderness camp, not because he was necessarily doing anything wrong yet that we knew of, but he was running with the worng sort of crowd and I think that we were all getting a little concerned for him.
    This camp that he went to in NC did wonders for him. I have never seen a sulky teen turn into a polite young man almost overnight. And this is no Eddie Haskell thing. I think it’s the real deal.
    It is as if his counselors there gave him the courage and his self esteem back that he had lost somewhere slong the way. That is what he needed to get back in with his older set of friends who had been by his side forever, and showed him that it’s okay to be a teen with morals and convictions and the ability to atand up for what you believe in.

  • Wendy G

    Wendy G

    December 14th, 2014 at 10:04 PM

    Can u please share with me the name of the camp your nephew attended as I am looking for a good one.

  • Elisa


    February 21st, 2015 at 10:00 AM

    Hi Eliza, Could you share with me the name of the program in NC that your nephew was sent to ? I would really appreciate it. Thanks.

  • Cari R

    Cari R

    April 4th, 2015 at 8:52 PM

    Which program? I am looking at one for my son in NC. So hard to figure it out.

  • ash


    June 11th, 2012 at 12:37 AM

    some people not gaining a lot does NOT mean the improvements in others is to be forgotten.there are many different forms of therapy and if one is not suitable for some then there must be another for them!

  • Jon


    June 11th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    Were the clinicians who were judging the effectiveness of the regimen actually looking at the smae things with a critical eye? You have to remember that “consistency” is not necessarily something that can be given a set empirical value. Humans have a difficult time seeing any two things the same way: what one person may deem as beneficial another person could look at as being detrimental. So I think that is key to keep in mind. Of course this kind of program may not be right for just any teen, but it could be right for some, and the validity of that should not be automatically discounted.

  • Randy


    June 11th, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    Wilderness camp really does create a life-changing experiences for struggling teenagers & young adults through outdoor therapeutic programs that help students learn to make better choices and live healthy, productive lives. Thank you for the info!

  • Bray


    June 11th, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    Does anyone know to get ahold of a list of the good ones, camps that could be good for a male teen going through a tough time? I want a good one that is reputable and that I know will be worth the money.

  • sullivan


    June 12th, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    There are so many teens who have benefitted from wilderness therapy and that kind of outdoor treatment that helps them get a little more in touch with nature and a little less concerned with what others think.

    Of course there are going to be those kids who think of this as a prison, sort of like being sent to military school, but I think that if most of them would just give it a chance they would see what a wonderful opportunity this could be for them.

    But like any other treatment facility, the success of the program strongly lies in how good the employees are and how strong the program is that this wilderness program is advocating. Please make sure that you are comfortable with the counselors and the program that they are espousing before turning your child over to them.

  • Orange Cloud

    Orange Cloud

    June 12th, 2012 at 6:06 PM

    Treat it as an option and things will be much better.If results from a certain therapy are mixed then it goes into the mid-level of satisfaction shelf,simple.After all,every treatment form is bound to work better for some individuals than others.

  • MissIndependent


    June 13th, 2012 at 4:52 AM

    When a teenager is adamantly against being a part of something like WT then he or she will never reap the full benefits of what a treatment program like this has to offer.

    They are young, they haven’t had the life experiences that many of us have had so the fact that they could really be screwing up their lives with their current decisions is too much for most of the to be able to grasp.

    WT is a way to teach them about making strong choices about their life but without all of the other distractions that we are often surrounded with. I think that if most of the were given the chance to participate and go into it with an open mind then theer would be a lot of teens out there telling you that this is the best thing that ahs ever happened to them.

  • kat


    June 26th, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    This is unsurprising. Wilderness programs are the new institutions for children with disabilities.

  • Tony


    June 26th, 2012 at 11:01 PM

    Wilderness programs for teens should be completely outlawed. No therapy, only a way to squeeze money out of parents. Several kids have died in these programs and there is no way to regulate them. Many kids report being sent to another long term program after wilderness. if there is abuse from staff, there is no way to ask the outside world for help. Communication is either nonexistent or monitored between kids and family. Google H.R 3126 112th congress and Greg Kutz findings of abuse and death in wilderness programs. He works for the Government Accountability Office. Plus these programs are frauds…..they use exhaustion, deprivation and constant peer pressure to hollow out the poor kid’s brains. This study is a great start…need to interview “survivors” of these camps. Program Death list: teenadvocatesusa.org/INMEMORIAM.html I know one kid in New York who got frostbite on his foot and the staff just laughed at him. Michelle Sutton and Aaron Bacon, were simply hiked to death….as were many others. teenadvocatesusa.homestead.com/deadlydiscipline.html

  • Ohlawd


    August 10th, 2012 at 12:31 AM

    The majority of commenters here obviously have never actually been to a camp like this, or else they wouldn’t be spouting the same bullshit PR that these programs advertise.

  • Grace Hurst

    Grace Hurst

    May 11th, 2013 at 7:22 AM

    We sent our Daughter to a Program in Maine last winter.
    the results were minimal, the practices were poor and the outcome was the school wanting to send her on. We brought her home and she is doing much better than being sent away. Children who are sent away are at huge risk for never recovering.

  • Kristi S.

    Kristi S.

    May 29th, 2016 at 8:32 PM

    Which program in Maine? Thanks.

  • Bill


    October 8th, 2015 at 12:42 AM

    Having been through a wilderness program personally. I would agree, the outcomes are inconsistent.

  • Anthony


    November 14th, 2015 at 4:40 AM

    They only observed the participants for 1 week!!!
    Most of the program’s I have looked at have an average stay of 18 months.
    We have friends whose son is a completely different kid since attending. He now has a chance at a decent life thanks to this therapy.

  • kilerboy


    January 13th, 2016 at 8:48 AM

    It doesnt work

  • Bob


    January 14th, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    Reading these comments help me to realize that these are too expensive they aren’t consistent and they make kids feel that they were abandonned by their parents. Would you want that? Would you want your child to hate you because they feel lke you abandoned them? And then think about the money you pay so your child could hate you. Its a risk and I don’t think that it is effective and you can make that same environment yourself and you can do it with your family for free, or for atleast a lot less. Its your choice but I would say don’t do it.

  • Kin


    May 18th, 2016 at 11:20 AM

    I’m getting ready to send my son to one next month. He has been in and out of trouble. He has had a traditional therapist (18 months), psychiatrist, MST therapist, and is on his second run in an inpatient drug rehab. To Tony, the risk of ‘death’ or unhappiness from WT will pale in comparison if he is either put in prison or dead. That is exactly where he is headed on his current path. I understand even this might not work. He turns 18 in 8 months. The money spent is a last ditch effort to save his life. I can make more money, but I will never sleep again at night if I don’t put every effort into changing the path that he is on. If your child had cancer and there was a 40% chance of cure, would you just let them die? Or would you do everything in your power to stop it?

  • Mike


    August 26th, 2016 at 1:21 PM

    Our daughter is in week 6 of WT in Oregon. Saw her last week and there is a significant improvement. Only time will tell the full story, we also were at a point where we/she had nothing to lose.

  • Raymond


    October 29th, 2016 at 10:22 PM

    Wondering how things ended up for your daughter?

  • Charles D

    Charles D

    May 24th, 2016 at 3:17 PM

    Hey everyone I am in the process of opening of a wilderness therapy program but with a different style. One guide, One nurse, and 2 Therapists will take a group of 5 to 10 clients on 30 day, 60 day, and 90 day Hikes. We are looking to build a family atmosphere in the groups and an air of positive reinforcement. While teaching healthy habits academics, and survival skills. With over 1 year of aftercare help or more. These long hikes are to show them that they can conquer anything they want to from addiction to depression. We want everyone’s input. If you dont like wilderness therapy then tell me why. We want everyones opinion so we can make the best program possible. We are still in the funding stage but we want this program to be the one where you start with us and you end with us no shuffling around to different programs draining you of money. Please reply to me with your suggestions and ill put them to good use. If you have an questions feel free to ask.

  • Joan G

    Joan G

    May 24th, 2016 at 8:06 PM

    What an amazingly commendable approach. “It takes a Community to raise a child or support a family.”

  • Leah


    May 5th, 2018 at 7:40 AM

    I am trying to look at programs to help my son as he doesn’t seem to learn from parental or societal corrections, and I love him and want to find a way to prevent him from continuing to live in anger and destroy relationships around him. If there is a new program, or if there are alternatives to wilderness (other than out patient therapy) I want to know about them. The internet is daunting!

  • Mellivora


    March 8th, 2017 at 12:41 PM

    I am glad to see people discussing the merits and limitations of Wilderness Therapy and Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare. I see great potential with his treatment approach and look forward to further research and understanding on the topic. In response to this article, it is misleading and not that helpful in educating professional or families about this approach. The article that is used to support claims made are misrepresentations of the study. The purpose of the article references is to “measured the extent to which researchers are consistent in their observations of participants.” This study was evaluating one of the methods of gathering data. In this goodtherapy.org news summary the author states: “According to a recent study conducted by Michele Lariviere, clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Canada, the results achieved through wilderness therapy continue to be varied and difficult to gauge.” That is not what this study concluded. The study referenced for this summary concluded: “Cronbach’s alpha is higher for longer tests than for shorter tests.” and “The results obtained in this study also underline the hazards of over-extrapolating from personal observation and anecdotal inquiry relating to participant change.” The results only highlighted issues in observation reporting of outcome data and says nothing about varied reports of outcome in wilderness therapy or how “Wilderness Therapy Provides Inconsistent Outcomes Among Youth.” Even though wilderness therapy is an unfamiliar approach to many we need to be careful to not misrepresent what is know about it.

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