Wilderness Therapy Programs and Wilderness Boot Camps: Is there a difference?

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By: Michael Conner, Psy.D
Mentor Research Institute
Revised:  May 21, 2014

Parents can contact a program believing they are enrolling their child in a wilderness therapy program when in fact they are placing their child in a boot camp in the wilderness.

Outdoor intervention programs have been growing in variety and popularity tremendously for the past 10 years. Terms like wilderness programs, wilderness camps, boot camps and wilderness boot camps are being used by programs, professionals and parents without clear distinction, definition or meaning. Programs are essentially free to call themselves whatever they want. The public's understanding of these programs is becoming blurred and uncertain. Parents can contact a program believing they are enrolling their child in a wilderness therapy program when in fact they are enrolling their child in a boot camp in the wilderness. 

Wilderness Therapy Programs

Wilderness therapy programs trace their origins to outdoor survival programs that placed children in a challenging environment where determination, communication and team efforts were outcomes. Children with low self-esteem, oppositional, defiant and conduct problems discovered their potential as well as the individual and group skills necessary to become successful in life. The top wilderness therapy programs are viable alternative to traditional therapy, residential treatment programs and psychiatric hospitals. 

For the most part, wilderness therapy programs are based on behavioral models and experiential education. Children are referred to as students or patients. These approaches to working with children are widely accepted forms of treatment and intervention for both adults and children. Universities provide earned degree in experiential education - a discipline that is becoming a cornerstone in wilderness therapy programs.

The assurances and integrity of services offered by programs can vary a great deal. Some programs are licensed and regulated as wilderness and outdoor treatment programs. Others are state regulated as mental health and chemical dependency treatment  programs. Several program are also accredited by the same institutions that over see hospitals. 

Wilderness therapy, in the purest form, is a positive growth experience where children face natural challenges and adversities that are designed to be therapeutic in nature. Children are not merely thrown into the wilderness and made to suffer hardships. They are removed from their environment, encouraged, challenged and give every opportunity to succeed. Wilderness therapy programming is overseen by licensed medical and mental health professionals who have experience and training in experiential education, behaviorism as well as group and interpersonal therapy. The wilderness is seen as a place of safety and   natural consequences and a place they can look at their life and consider what they were doing, what they were thinking, how that made them feel, what they want and what they are willing to do to make that happen. The wilderness is a place to take action where initiative is naturally rewarding.

Children begin to change naturally when they are removed from environments filled with negative influences and triggering events that produce self-defeating, reckless or self-destructive behavior. They enter the wilderness on a journey of self-discovery. When children become involved in routines that are logical and necessary in nature, the natural result is to develop relationships, communicate, reveal their problems, help each other, face the consequences of their behavior and discover their hidden potential. They discover their true feelings as well as more realistic hopes and dreams. It is a time of reflection, discovery and building new skills. Rather than become angry, children become assertive. Instead of hiding their feelings, they ask for help and talk to people they trust. Instead of rushing around, they learn to listen to others and be patient. In those moments when they are alone watching a sunset (and not a television), children discover their true self. When they are afraid of their feelings, they become courageous instead of victims.

Wilderness Boot Camps

Boot Camp programs trace their origins to the juvenile justice system where they were created as as an alternative to jail. Children participated in an Army-like training program against their will or as a voluntary alternative to jail. The Boot Camp was embraced and funded by state and country criminal justice systems primarily because of the cost efficiency and history of the U.S. Army turning around the lives of young men. As the boot camp appeal grew, boot camps were next used as an intervention for kids who were getting into trouble and those who were coming to the attention of law enforcement. More recently, a few boot camps are claiming to treat children with behavioral, emotional and psychological problems. 

Boot camps were initially implemented in training facilities and buildings similar to military training compounds. Various States and Counties around the country had funding for programs and were seeking alternatives to jail. The private sector developed programs that centered around stable funding sources. The original concept of a boot camp changed when the private sector took the boot camp model and moved it into outdoor settings. Moving outdoors cut costs, eliminated the reliance on housing and incorporated the positive elements of wilderness therapy. Boot camps moved from facilities into the wilderness. 

When boot camps left their buildings and entered the outdoors they became "wilderness boot camps". Boot camps have always had some appeal to the public and juvenile justice system. Wilderness boot camps not only retained the boot camp appeal but this blending of program concepts advanced their market appeal by incorporating the "healing power of the wilderness". However, at this point the wilderness boot camp became a new entity that had very little in common with a wilderness therapy program and some might argue that wilderness therapy and a wilderness boot camp are separate and incompatible treatment models.

The behavioral and psychological philosophy of a boot camp should be understood and appreciated by any parent or professional considering this intervention. Boot camps are designed to rapidly gain control, compliance and obedience to authority. The tools employed include subjecting people to severe physical adversity, as well as emotional and psychological trauma that is intended to strengthen resolve under pressure and break opposition and defiance. Boot camps use psychological punishment including verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, aggressive gesturing and challenges. Positive behavior is rewarded and unwanted responses are punished. Physical punishment might include depravation, work details, loss of privileges, isolation, strenuous exercise and corporal  punishment. Children in many programs are struck or hazed in manner that is now forbidden in a military boot camp.  Whatever you might think about corporal punishment, these approaches have been shown to produce rapid changes in outward behavior. Children invariably change their behavior in some way when the alternative is frightening or painful. However, the consequences of severe punishment can also include long term psychological and behavioral problems.

Wilderness Therapy Programs Vs Wilderness Boot Camps

The philosophical, structural and programmatic differences between a wilderness therapy program and a boot camp program can be worlds apart. The distinction is more clear between a wilderness therapy program and a boot camp.

"Wilderness therapy should not be confused with a juvenile boot camp program. The philosophy of wilderness therapy is to allow children to experience the force of nature as their teacher and to avoid staff use of force and restraint. Boot camp programs are designed and run with a high degree of interpersonal confrontation as well as physical and psychological aggression toward students. Wilderness therapy programs are designed to create therapeutic opportunities and choices when students are confronted with nature and inevitable realities when living in a primitive environment. The fact that a student must gather wood and build a fire in order to cook (i.e. wilderness therapy) is different than screaming and intimidating a child if they don't do what they are told (i.e. a boot camp).  Obtaining control and compliance through the use of intimidation and coercion is characteristic of a boot camp program.  Wilderness therapy and boot camps are distinctly different and incompatible approaches to working with youth."

From "The Use Of Force and Restraint In Wilderness Therapy Programs: Issues."

A wilderness therapy program is based on a positive growth model driven by the natural consequences of removing children from their environment, placing them in nature, providing therapeutic experiences and allowing a natural process of change to unfold. In contrast, a wilderness boot camp relies heavily on punishment, confrontation and depravation to gain compliance and obedience. Research consistently demonstrates that punishment based intervention can change behavior quickly, but those changes do not last once removed from that environment. Military boot camps are very effective in changing and maintaining behavior because recruits are required to remain in the military for years. Follow-up is the key to maintaining any benefit derived from any program. 

The outcome research on wilderness therapy programs and boot camps is rather poor and conflicting. There are wilderness and boot camp programs that are clearly very safe and effective. As an industry, both approaches vary so much that it is hard to say who is doing a better job with any statistical certainty. The controversy over which is better, wilderness therapy vs. wilderness boot camps, may be the result of some poorly run programs hurting the collective performance of programs. 

In all fairness to wilderness boot camps, there are wilderness therapy programs that are funded by the juvenile justice system to provide interventions for youth. But they are not run like a wilderness boot camp. However, there is also an emerging trend where some wilderness therapy programs are changing their programs and adopting boot camp philosophy. This blending of values and approaches can present a real problem for parents and consumers. Parents should be extremely cautious when considering a program that blends both approaches. 

The Dangers and Risks Associated with Wilderness Therapy and Wilderness Boot Camps 

In my opinion, boot camps may have a place in the juvenile justice system but only if they are overseen and operated by professionals who are qualified and licensed. The truth is that a licensed mental health professional could lose their license if they subjected a child to severe physical and psychological trauma. 

Nearly 1 out of five children have a mental or emotional problem in this country. The U.S. Surgeon General's office suggests that one out of ten have severe problems and that only one out of three receive any qualified mental health treatment. This would suggest that children with behavioral problems end up in programs without the program knowing the underlying problem. Punishment based models carry an inherent risk when they are applied to children who may have undiagnosed psychological or emotional problems. 

Some kids break when you try to scare them straight. There is no doubt that some children released from boot camps look like  P.O.W's, hostages or victims of domestic violence.  While they may stop their criminal behavior, they may now have new problems including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children with PTSD  may experience painful flashbacks and they need therapy to work through their fears, anger and nightmares.

A properly run wilderness boot camp is an powerful and potentially damaging intervention.  A boot camp is not a program that a parent should voluntarily seek unless they have the benefit of an experienced professional acting as a consultant. The consultant should have experience with a particular program or at least be able to interview and check that program out thoroughly. Anything less would present an unacceptable risk.

Accidents and abuse can and does happen in Wilderness Therapy Programs. But it also happen in hospitals, residential treatment program and jails. While injuries and abuse can occur, abuse in a wilderness therapy program is not allowed and employees are  terminated and reported to the authorities. Employee screening, training and oversight are critical elements in a properly run program whether it is a wilderness therapy program or a wilderness boot camp. 


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Copyright 2002 to 2007, Michael G. Conner