The therapeutic benefits of wilderness came into sharper focus this month as mental health professionals gathered for the Regional Wilderness Therapy Symposium at the Crowne Plaza Resort in West Asheville April 13-15.
Symposium attendee Will White says “Asheville was a natural fit” for this first Eastern branch of the symposium. Western North Carolina is already home to several well-established programs — Outward Bound in Riceville, SUWS Carolinas in Old Fort and Trails Carolina in Lake Toxaway. He also notes the relative availability of older campgrounds that have fallen out of use by other groups just waiting for repurposing.
“The proximity to wilderness and a large population of trained guides and therapists already living here make Western North Carolina an ideal area for further growth in the industry in the coming years,” says White.
Over 250 field guides, doctors, therapists and clinicians, many from Asheville and Western North Carolina, gathered for the symposium, which was presented by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council based in Park City, Utah. These programs use extended backcountry travel and wilderness living experiences as prescriptive therapy combined with individual and family counseling.
“Wilderness therapy is very unique in that it combines the best that psychotherapy has to offer within an experiential and group-based context. It is immediately applied and tangible, and happens in the here and now,” explains Sandra Newes, a psychologist at Clearview Psychological Services in Asheville.
“I do believe wilderness therapy will have significant growth in this area,” says Newes. “We have all the beauty of the wilderness all around us here in WNC, and with the myriad of creative ways that wilderness therapy can be applied — residential treatment, community-based, adjunctive to traditional psychotherapy — that I predict it will feed on itself, meaning that the more programs and practitioners there are, the more ideas of creative ways to utilize wilderness therapy will come out of that. There are also great opportunities for collaboration amongst professionals.”
Newes presented a lecture, along with Mary Flora and Rebecca Gebb of Asheville Academy for Girls, on “The Community Resiliency Model – Wellness-Based Skills for Self-Regulation,” to therapists and field guides at the symposium.
“This immediacy [of wilderness] allows for more in-depth learning and application than often happens in a traditional office setting. It also brings the added benefit of outdoor education and the cognitive, emotional and physical benefits of time outdoors in the wilderness,” says Newes.
In his book Stories From The Field, A History of Wilderness Therapy, White says modern camping “evolved as an antidote to the physical and moral decline of youth due to changing industrial society” in the mid-1800s. Co-founder of Summit Achievement in Maine, he chronicles this evolution and includes a detailed summary of the recent histories and fundamental differences of wilderness therapy methods beginning in the 1960s. Many of the current programs sprouted out of programs pioneered by Outward Bound in Colorado and Brigham Young University in Utah. Subsequent programs were founded on the concept that therapeutic interventions should not only leave the traditional office couch behind, but could thrive, and have more sustained impact, when clients were offered physical challenges in an unfamiliar environment.
Founded in 1996, the OBHC currently represents over 20 wilderness therapy treatment programs throughout the country. The council was created out of a need to create industry standards, share best practices and learn from other members about how to promote safety and success for their clients. The OBHC requires all members to become accredited through an independent third-party program and regularly sponsors independent research and review of collected field data.
The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center is a grant-funded, independent research group at the University of New Hampshire that specifically focuses on adventure-based therapy modalities. Center staff provides the council with documentation of the efficacy of wilderness therapy, risk management, program accreditation and identification of trends and success rates through data analysis.
Wilderness programs are designed to encourage self-discovery and actualization, resilience and a better understanding of personal responsibility through wilderness living experiences that challenge and engage participants. Field guides and therapists work together with young adults and teens to develop tools and coping skills for long-term solutions for a range of developmental disorders, including substance abuse, sexual abuse, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Clients learn to work and live together as a group and build self-esteem as individuals.
Many attendees at the symposium began their stay in Asheville on Wednesday evening with a special opening dinner and celebration honoring field staff at the Buffalo Nickel in West Asheville. Paul Wolf, the outdoor leadership program coordinator at Southwestern Community College in Bryson City, attended the symposium “to learn and keep current in my field, to reconnect with my professional colleagues.”
Wolf’s college program offers a wilderness therapy certificate as part of an associate degree in wilderness leadership.
“The networking reception helped us promote our program and meet with our peers to learn about their programs,” Wolf says. “The opening dinner reception at the Buffalo Nickel allowed me to meet many new people and to showcase West Asheville to folks from abroad.
“Western North Carolina offers a tremendous venue for treatment and healing in our beautiful surroundings. I think programs will continue to open and expand and find their niche as we learn more about the efficacy and successes that different treatment modalities have to offer. As insurance companies began to realize and accept these programs for reimbursement, the growth could be staggering,” he says.
A few special off-site opportunities for short adventures around Asheville were also available during the symposium. Derek Daley of Legacy Outdoor Advenures from Loa, Utah, led a mountain biking session along with a discussion about “Integrating Opportunities for Efficacy: The Importance of Roles and Responsibilities” at Kolo Bike Park, a mountain bike park with trails and a pump track designed for skill training, that’s a part of the Adventure Center of Asheville at the Crowne Plaza Resort.
“I practice what I preach out in the field every week,” says Daley. ““For me, I’ve been doing this for 16 years. I started as a field guide for a wilderness group in Alaska. There’s something inherently simple, almost magic, about wilderness and that, in my opinion, triggers real change. People have been going to find healing in the wilderness for a long time before we started ever talking about ideas like therapy. But here’s what we do know: pre- and post-program research shows that wilderness works, and it works better than most other therapy modalities, and we’re using the same tests and tools to measure that success with a client as other traditional practitioners do.”
There was also a hike Friday morning to Rattlesnake Lodge from the Blue Ridge Parkway led by local Appalachian Trail thru hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis. Davis was the keynote speaker for the symposium. During her Thursday evening presentation, “The Next Step: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Empowerment on the Appalachian Trail,” she discussed the subjects of her books, Becoming Odyssa and Called Again, in which Davis relates many of her experiences and challenges hiking on the Appalachian Trail. She recalled her first time hiking on the AT was in 2001 as a young adult with no real hiking experience, trying to find her place in life, much like those who participate in wilderness therapy.
She compared this with her shift in perspective 10 years later as a professional hiker and guide when she returned, setting the record for fastest traverse of the AT in 46 days. What started out in her youth as “just a walk” led her outdoors and all over the world. She recommends that those involved in wilderness therapy define a path with personal goals, communicate with their support network, remain adaptable, be able to accept redirection and embrace challenges on and off the trail. “Wilderness therapy works,” she says, speaking from personal experience. “People can’t truly heal unless they spend time outdoors.”
“I would love to see this type of intervention expand and become more widely accepted,” Newes says. “I also wish that more people were aware of the existing research that shows significant benefits from this type of intervention. The most important part of the symposium is connecting with other like-minded professionals from a variety of different backgrounds who are doing their best to combine sophisticated clinical interventions with the power of the wilderness. There is so much talent and creativity in this group; it is really inspirational.”
Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center
Will White Summit Achievement
Legacy Outdoor Adventures
Outdoor Leadership Program Southwestern Community College
Clear View Psychological Services
Jennifer Pharr Davis
Kolo Bike Park – Asheville Adventure Center