Outdoorsmen and women have always understood the therapeutic benefits of spending time in the wilderness. Its power is undeniable but sadly unknown by too many unacquainted and misguided teens.
For adolescents lucky enough to be introduced at the right time, the wilderness has the ability to not only provide relief from simple stress, but also give some the insight they desperately need to survive until adulthood.
When I was first introduced to Sam by his parents, he was a 16-year-old male drug addict who I truly believed would be dead or in jail within the year. Besides using multiple substances, he was engaged in nearly every type of defiant, dangerous behavior available. Most of the time he believed he was invincible. Other times he simply didn’t care if he lived or died. As an outpatient clinician who has treated children and adolescents for 20 years, I knew Sam needed much more than I could provide in a once-a-week session.
As a wilderness writer and survivalist, I had an idea on how to help him. Gaining trust and uncovering insight is difficult with any adolescent, but none are harder to reach than males who are also addicted. They lie, steal, relapse on a dime and do anything possible to return to their dangerous world. I have introduced countless other adolescent clients to hunting, fishing and survival skills, but never one as enmeshed as Sam. He needed a situation where he could not escape or lie his way out of therapy for a long time. With blessing of the court, I helped enroll Sam in a wilderness therapy program in Idaho. Within a week of meeting me, he was on a plane with his father to an area near the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Since I had hiked much of the Selway myself, I knew this city boy was about to find out he was indeed very vincible, and get a dose of peace and humility thrown in as a bonus.
Unbeknownst to him, he wouldn’t see his drug-using friends again for nine months. And despite what be believed about them, he would quickly realize the friends he was sure “had his back” would abandon him within days of his leaving, and that his biological family was in fact just that: his only real family.
There are hundreds of wilderness therapy programs in nearly every western state and in the south. Some are legitimate and work miracles. Others are dangerous and only exist to drain struggling families of their savings. Even legitimate programs are very expensive. It is very possible to spend $50,000 for a program that lasts as long as Sam’s. Insurance doesn’t usually cover the programs, though there are some exceptions. Some offer scholarships and will slide their fee for people who qualify. The great programs make kids spend extended time in the beginning in very basic wilderness spike camps. They separate males and females and have ample staff to monitor every minute of every client’s time in the wild. I like camps that require hiking, food prep and the kind of hard work that anyone in the wild would be faced with. Be careful, however, of camps that push kids to the point of exhaustion every day or deny food, water and shelter as punishment. They are not only dangerous, but not even clinically indicated.
Good wilderness programs also have a network in place to assist their clients after the time in the field is completed. Many of them have accredited high schools and families in place who will house the adolescents near campus until they graduate from high school. One large organization who has camps in the both the south and west boasts 75 percent of their program attendees not only graduate high school, but go on to attend a college of their choice. That is a much better record than many mainstream high schools in Indiana.
After nine months, Sam came home. His discharge plan included follow-up therapy with me. At our first meeting it was clear he was a different person. He told me how he fought the wilderness and program for the first full month but kept losing. Eventually, he gave in and had an epiphany. It was a simple but life changing understanding.
“I was tired of fighting for something I didn’t even want just so I could be in charge,” he said. “I realized I am more than that and that it is ok to let people help you be the person you are meant to be.” He knew I understood the humbling power of isolation and truly wild places, and finally allowed me to help him on the next leg of his journey.
Don Mulligan writes Outdoors with Don for this newspaper. He can be reached at