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Wilderness therapy is a subset of adventure-based therapy, which in turn is under the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry. It is the use of experiential education, individual and group therapy in a wilderness setting to treat clients for a range of emotional, developmental and relational struggles. Clients range in age from 10-17 for adolescents, and 18-28 for adults. There are a variety of different types of wilderness therapy programs, with the most common models being sustained expedition or base camp models with a typical stay of 8–12 weeks, other single expedition style models involve single 25-35 day trips. Some grow out of a survival approach and others out of an Outward Bound approach. Their aim is to guide participants toward self-reliance and self-respect.
The New York Asylum and the San Francisco Agnew Asylum played an early role in the development of wilderness therapy, drawing upon the philosophies of Kurt Hahn. Although the therapy is often used for behavior modification by the families of young people, the aims and methods of wilderness therapy do not center on behavior modification. Many wilderness therapy programs avoid what they view as manipulations, contrived activities, psychological games, and contrived consequences. Most programs employ no force, confrontation, point or level systems, or other overt behavioral modification techniques or models, but stress assertiveness, open communication between staff and students, and are very group-oriented. There is no one standardized model for the therapy, since many models of wilderness therapy are reflective of different programs, although most usually contain the following principles: a series of tasks that are increasingly difficult in order to challenge the patient; teamwork activities for working together; the presence of a psychiatrist or therapist as a group leader; and the use of a therapeutic process such as a reflection journal or self-evaluation.
Michael G. Conner of the Mentor Research Institute states that "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". Alternately, some programs are derived from a more ecopsychological perspective, according to the director of the wilderness therapy program at Naropa University, "through contemplative practice and the experiential outdoor classroom, students gain further self-awareness and the ability to respond to whatever arises in the moment." The founders of ANASAZI Foundation concluded that "we learned that whenever we adopted what we have come to call 'contrived' experiences, the overall impact often diminished for the participants."
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