SEPTEMBER 2013 • MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY 51
new kids entering all the time and graduates exiting. “There’s
a lot of peer mentoring and peer modeling,” DeBois says.
Once the teens are properly assessed, the wilderness
setting, the tailored therapy and the lengthy stay — which
averages eight to 10 weeks — provide a crucible for growth,
says DeBois. That’s because the wilderness is devoid of escape
hatches: Hiding in one’s room playing computer games is
not an option. In addition, the longer stay helps break down
defensive barriers, with young people typically going through
an avoidance stage, a learning stage, and a stage in which they
start to internalize healthier thinking and behavior patterns.
“A big part of this experience is helping students
experience for themselves a greater sense of self-efficacy and
internal locus of control,” DeBois says.
Nature is a catalyst, too. That’s because it’s empowering
to realize that you can survive in the wilderness, Erkis says.
In addition, the outdoors nurtures physical health, which in
turn fosters mental health.
“They’re in an emotionally safe place, they’re not going
anywhere, and by the way, they’re exercising, they’re eating
well, they’re sleeping well — they’re starting to look and feel
great,” Erkis says.
The setting also allows psychologists to work in fun and
nonpathologizing ways. For instance, DeBois treated an
extremely shy boy who was deeply anxious that others would
judge him harshly. DeBois suggested the staff play charades
and give the boy an assignment that made him the center of
attention — an exercise that helped the boy see that being in
the spotlight wasn’t so scary.
“Being in this kind of setting allows therapy to happen in
this backdoor way where it doesn’t feel like therapy,” DeBois
Other psychologists are taking families, adults and
couples out to the wilderness for therapeutic experiences.
Psychologist Scott Bandoroff, PhD, launched the field of
“wilderness family therapy” in 1990 when he observed that
young people who had made great gains on wilderness
therapy trips tended to lose ground when they got home, the
result of returning to negative family dynamics.
Given the difficulty of scheduling time for a whole family,
plus the cost of these ventures, Bandoroff tends to take
families out for three-day weekends. These sessions can make
a big impact, he has found, thanks to a combination of being
removed from daily life and its distractions; doing exercises
to build trust and teamwork; taking solo trips where family
members have a chance to ponder their individual issues and
roles; and participating in group activities that end with a
reward, like a beautiful mountain view. Families also set and
agree on goals based on what they’ve learned, so they can
continue to work on issues raised during their time out, says
• Association for Experiential Education (www.
aee.org). A nonprofit, professional association
whose members include public educators, youth
programmers, mental health and addictions
counselors, wilderness and adventure companies
and therapists, and others.
• Graduate training in wilderness therapy and
Naropa University, Boulder, Colo. ( www.naropa.
edu): Master’s degrees in wilderness therapy and
Prescott College, Prescott, Ariz. ( www.prescott.
edu): Distance-learning master’s degree in
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (www.
umich.edu): Certificate program in adventure
therapy, through the social work program.
University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.
( www.unh.edu): Dual degree in social work and
• National Association of Therapeutic Schools
and Programs ( www.natsap.org). An advocacy
and resource center for innovative organizations
that devote themselves to helping struggling
young people and their families. Mainly geared to
• Outward Bound for Veterans (www.
outwardbound.org/). Offers fully funded
wilderness courses for returning service members
and recent veterans to help them readjust to life at
• Peak Experience (http://peakexperience.
org). Psychologist Scott Bandoroff, PhD,
offers consulting to organizations that want to
incorporate wilderness family therapy into their
programs and more.
• Summer internships with wilderness therapy
programs. Bandoroff says these positions are
plentiful in summer months and offer a great chance
to get outdoor experience and a taste of the field.
— TORI DEANGELIS
Outdoor wilderness resources