In her 2017 book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, writes,
“What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and emotional, spiritual, or physical quest. Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness – an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
While Dr. Brown’s depicts a metaphorical wilderness, there exists a real wilderness where adolescents and young adults can stand – a place of solitude, vulnerability, and emotional/spiritual/physical quest. Enter Wilderness Therapy, an experiential model of therapy that puts professional mental health care in an outdoor environment. The connection between wilderness and positive mental health outcomes has long been known. In 1894, John Muir – naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and advocate for wilderness preservation, and founder of the Sierra Club – wrote,
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
Today, the connection has been proven through an ever-growing evidence base of scientific research. Wilderness Therapy is a field run by mental health professionals and regulated by state agencies as well as an accreditation process through the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. As “untamed” and “unpredictable” as the wilderness might be, Wilderness Therapy offers a safe environment both physically and emotionally. Students backpack through the wilderness in small peer groups supervised by direct-care staff. They engage in individual, group, family, and experiential therapy, all facilitated by a licensed therapist. Brown’s notions of the “wilderness” are present and they directly contribute to emotional progress students make.
Students in Wilderness Therapy find a sense of solitude by disconnecting from the busy world and opening up their capacity for introspection. Opportunities to practice mindfulness and self-reflection are built into the daily schedule. The sense of solitude helps students learn about their patterns of behavior and relationships in a deep way. This deep self-exploration takes vulnerability. The wilderness opens students up to be more vulnerable than they would be in a traditional therapy setting. Their emotional quest occurs both in therapy and in their experiential engagement in the wilderness itself. In individual, group, and family therapy students explore their primary emotions and learn how to foster healthy connection. In experiential therapy they learn how to actually engage in change behavior. Primitive skills, wilderness survival, and group leadership tasks provide opportunities to practice adaptive social/emotional coping skills, and develop resilience and grit in the face of discomfort or emotional hardship. Experiential engagement with the wilderness empowers them by teaching them what it feels like to take accountability for their own mental health. Their spiritual quest develops out of this feeling. When students feel empowered in their therapy, they are more motivated towards health and they begin searching for what makes their life meaningful. The physical quest comes from the mind-body wellness imbedded in the program. Students hike and engage in other activities for exercise, eat a meal plan designed by a nutritionist, drink the correct amount of water, develop regular sleep patterns, and – of course – breathe that fresh mountain air!
Solitude, vulnerability, and emotional/spiritual/physical quest are the qualities that make the wilderness (both metaphorical and actual) seem uncomfortable or daunting. However, they are also the strongest assets of this treatment modality – the elements that inspire real emotional/behavioral changes in adolescents, young adults and their families. They are the reason that the wilderness is, “the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”