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Ben Hearn
Nov 13, 2017

The Power of Wilderness Therapy

During my time in grad school, I was fortunate enough to engineer my program time so that it allowed me to work as a ‘Field Instructor’ a summer in wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy is a subset of a rather large umbrella term “Adventure Therapy”. Adventure therapy includes activities such as backpacking, equine therapy, mountain biking, and skiing. Adventure and wilderness therapy programs have a tendency to get muddled with other programs such as “boot camps” and some programs are fraught with both allegations and some confirmed instances of unsafe and/or ineffective practice. Fortunately for myself, this was not my experience with wilderness therapy (we were owned by a multi-million dollar healthcare corporation and had lawyers to keep the program in line). The program I worked for fostered an environment that encouraged the growth of clients and staff to a degree that I had never seen before and guided my idea for what treatments could look like.

My specific program was in the Pisgah National Forest near Asheville, NC and entailed the most intimidating job interview I have ever had. A dozen or so applicants arrived for a weekend-long interview which first consisted of the usual ice-breakers, then a short hike with packs to our campsite for the weekend where we set up tarp shelters and learned some basic primitive skills. The staff admitted to doing their best to ‘scare off applicants’. A single shift was comprised of 8 days and 7 nights of primitive camping ‘in the field’ for staff, of sleeping under a tarp with just a foam pad and sleeping bag and managing difficult student behaviors, emotions and crises. Occasionally, these crises would necessitate therapeutic holds or intervening on dangerous situations. I took the job because I was terrified by it.

During my summer in the wilderness, I dare say I learned as much as I had in two years of graduate school regarding therapeutic skills. I became an adept at identifying the stages of arousal individuals progress through as they enter in and out of crises. Knowledge of group dynamics became fluid and rote as I observed how different individuals worked to meet their needs - by intimidation, manipulation, denial, and refulsal- to name a few. I developed patience as I toiled with my co-staff to guide students instead to healthy communication.

I had heard of “Trauma Informed Care” before at an agency I interned at, but here in the wilderness, our program and group truly embodied its spirit to a degree I’ve not seen since. Trauma informed care, in a nutshell, seeks to do the following things at an agency wide level:

  1. Ask “What has happened” vs. “What is wrong”
  2. Hold an environment of emotional and physical safety for consumers and staff
  3. Facilitate open communication amongst consumers and staff regarding programmatics, strengths, and areas for growth

In addition to the adherence to the spirit of Trauma Informed Care, the program also afforded both students and staff the opportunity for astounding personal growth by radically changing the environment and input stimuli. One becomes gradually aware at how poor interpersonal communication and awareness of internal states had become as a result of social media and constant distractions. Actions became intentional and responsive, rather than reactive. Time moved from being unidirectional and anxiety-provoking to cyclical and comforting. The wilderness forces us to be alone with, face, and befriend ourselves and others in our group. It shows a way of being that isn’t known to many, but is familiar and comforting. Staff tended to become aware of and adjust to this much more quickly than students, but the majority of students at least began to develop an awareness that there was a way of being other than the one they were enmeshed in.

Discovering and experiencing this way of being is something that has stayed with me since my brief time in the field and frankly, I miss it. It influences how I view the possible outcomes of therapy and ways that therapy becomes effective. Many clients come to us to catch their breath before being thrust back into a society which does not value or facilitate what is necessary to be emotionally and socially healthy. As a field staff, the culture of the group was much more easily guided towards wellness- we had far more control and fewer variables. As counselors, our task is infinitely larger. It is why we are held by our code of ethics to engage in community engagement, advocacy, and policy development.  Our concern for the individual should not be divorced from our care for the whole and this is a tall order, but not one that can be neglected if we are to be effective.
Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice. 


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  1. 3 Anna 15 Nov
    Thank you. Great Post.
  2. 2 Tequila 15 Nov
    Wilderness Therapy is an intervention I have never heard of!! Thank you for the knowledge and insight into this type of therapy. I will share with my cohort in the grad program!!
  3. 1 Chad 03 Sep
    Ben, are you aware of any specific trauma informed care trainings for a wilderness setting? Something that wilderness therapy or other type programs could purchase or subscribe to? Thanks.


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