Wilderness Adventure Experiences To Improve Mental Health in Adolescents: How Safe Are They?

Adolescents participating in wilderness and adventure therapy programs are at significantly less risk of injury than those playing football and are three times less likely to visit the emergency room for an injury than if they were at home, a new study by University of New Hampshire researchers finds. These findings, based on an analysis of risk management data from 12 programs providing outdoor behavioral healthcare in 2011, were reported in the Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs.

“After ‘does this program work?’, the question most asked by people considering adventure therapy is ‘will my child be safe?'” says Michael Gass, professor of outdoor education in the kinesiology department at UNH, who wrote the article with lead author Stephen Javorski, a UNH doctoral student. “While no one can guarantee the unconditional safety of any child, we can now show the relative risk levels for adolescents. This study shows there is actually less risk to participants on wilderness therapy programs, when they are conducted correctly, than to adolescents in their normal everyday activities.”

Adventure therapy, described as the prescriptive use of wilderness adventure experiences to improve the mental health of clients, primarily serves adolescents and is often seen as a treatment of “last resort” for these youth, who typically present with three or more dysfunctional behaviors such as depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideologies. Gass, a leading expert in the field, estimates that there are more than 200 such programs nationwide ranging from multimillion dollar programs to individual counselors who might informally take a group or class into the woods.

For this study, Gass and Javorski looked at incident and illness data collected by the 12 adventure therapy programs that comprise the Outdoor Behavioral Health Industry Council for 2011. Analyzing injuries that required a client be removed from regular programming for more than 24 hours – including injuries treated in the field as well as those that required evacuation to a medical facility – the adventure therapy programs had an injury rate of .11 injuries per 1,000 days in 2011, or one injury for every 9,091 client-days. The estimated national average rate of injuries for adolescents treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms was three times that rate (.38 per 1,000 days).

The member-programs of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council that provided incident data to this study are the Anasazi Foundation (Ariz.), Mountain Homes Youth Ranch (Utah), OMNI Youth Services (Ill.), Open Sky Wilderness Therapy (Colo.), Redcliff Ascent (Utah), Second Nature Cascades (Ore.), Second Nature Entrada (Ore.), Soltreks (Minn.), Summit Achievement (Maine), Legacy Outdoor Adventures (Utah), Outback Therapeutic Expeditions (Utah), and Wendigo Lake Expeditions: REACH (Ontario). This study was funded by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC).

Population of focus: Adolescents

Links to resource:

Organization: University of New Hampshire

Journal: Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs

Date: 2013