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Troubled teens head into the woods to salvage their lives

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Teens learn wilderness skills that give them a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance. (Courtesy of ANASAZI Foundation)

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Some programs also incorporate family members into the teen's treatment. (Courtesy of ANASAZI Foundation)

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Hiking is a central activity to most wilderness programs. (Courtesy of ANASAZI Foundation)

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Many teens who participate in wilderness programs go on to therapeutic boarding schools to continue treatment. (Courtesy of ANASAZI Foundation)

It sounds like a typical summer camp outing. A group of teenagers hike into the forest with tents, tarps and other gear they’ll need for survival strapped to their backs.

In the wilderness, they learn to use a compass, erect a shelter, build a fire and read a map. Under the guidance of their counselors, they will spend several days convening with nature and each other and learn practical skills and life lessons.

Only these are not average teenagers looking for summer adventure and escape. These are troubled teens, and they aren’t confronting nature for the fun of it. In fact, most haven’t chosen to confront nature at all. Instead, their parents have sent them to the great outdoors hoping that the experience will get their wayward children back on track.

Parents who don’t want to send their children to boot camps, residential therapy or outpatient treatment--or who have tried these options and seen them fail--are increasingly turning to wilderness programs in the hope that they will provide a positive learning experience and determine whether their children need further treatment.

Although most of these programs have been around for a couple of decades, parents are now turning to them more frequently, in part because of a lack of quality government-financed mental health care services in the United States. In 1999, the Office of the Surgeon General reported a “dearth of child psychiatrists, appropriately trained clinical child psychologists or social workers” to treat American children and adolescents.

Many professionals say the situation has gotten worse. “There’s a severe scarcity for mental health care services in general,” said Dr. Lourdes Rigual-Lynch, director of mental health for the New York Children’s Health Project.

Wilderness programs aim to use time in nature to teach teenagers self-reliance and introspection and to show them the consequences of their behavior. In addition to outdoor activities like hiking and rock climbing, programs often include group and individual therapy and a daily opportunity for reflection on dealing with life challenges. According to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, 5,235 students attended accredited wilderness programs in 2006.

Marvin Goldberg, an independent educational consultant in Cambridge, Mass., said the wilderness option “has really taken off.” With life becoming increasingly complicated and stressful for teenagers and with diminished local treatment choices, Goldberg said, “families just get so frustrated that they look for other alternatives.”

Frustrated is exactly how Karen Marchetti felt after residential therapy and outpatient treatment had failed to help her 17-year-old daughter, Christine, who frequently broke rules at home, used drugs and ran away for eight months.

At the suggestion of law enforcement officials, Marchetti, who lives in a suburb of Phoenix, looked into the ANASAZI program in Mesa, Ariz. She was impressed with the staff and their philosophy. “You got an immediate feeling that people were calm and understanding,” Marchetti said. After seeing more traditional programs fail, Marchetti liked the ANASAZI philosophy that “change has to come from inside the person,” she said.

Although Christine was resistant at first, she stayed out on the trail for nearly eight weeks. She no longer uses drugs, has a much better relationship with her family and has completed her high school equivalency test.

Although research in this field is relatively new, Keith Russell, the director of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative, has studied the effectiveness of these programs. The method is not a panacea for all children, he said, but it certainly helps many and also provides a good assessment of a teenager’s needs.

“The main core philosophy,” Russell said, “is getting kids out of their core comfort zones and making [them] take a look at themselves objectively.”

Figuring out which options are best can be overwhelming to families facing a crisis. Many parents in need turn to people like Lon Woodbury, an independent educational consultant, for direction on where to send their kids.

Woodbury understands the options firsthand. Fourteen years ago, Woodbury sent his daughter, Kristie Henley, then 17, to the Explorations wilderness program in Montana because she was “destroying her life,” he said, by hanging out with unsavory characters, letting her grades slip and running away.

Although Henley didn’t want to go, she returned with what Woodbury described as “a positive attitude on self-improvement” and helped pick out a therapeutic boarding school to attend in order to continue her therapy.

“In a sense, we had our daughter back,” Woodbury said.

Helping families deal with troubled teenagers has become a big business. Wilderness programs usually run for three to eight weeks and generally cost around $350 to $500 a day. Insurance may cover some of the fees, but parents often have to take out loans to make the payments.

Not everyone is sold on the benefits of such programs. Todd Hockenbury, who has worked for 12 years in the therapeutic boarding school business, said that, because most teenagers go on to such schools after attending wilderness programs, families would save time and money if they skipped the wilderness programs.

“Why would you put the kid in the program for 30 days when they have to go to a therapeutic boarding school anyway?” Hockenbury said. “In my opinion, it’s a waste of money.”

Maia Szalavitz, a former drug addict and author of "Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids," is also skeptical, particularly because there hasn’t been much research on the effectiveness of the programs. She believes that parents have become terrified because society has begun to “pathologize normal adolescent behavior.” As a result, many are turning toward treatment options that haven’t been thoroughly evaluated.

While Szalavitz thinks some of these programs can be helpful, she advises parents to be wary.

“We just don’t know that it works,” she said. “To claim that it does based on the stories of some people just isn’t science.”

But for parents like Marchetti and Woodbury, and even for many former students who have completed wilderness programs, the investment has been worthwhile.

Henley, who struggled with isolation and self-image issues, is a believer. She said she would never forget the first time she created a fire on her own 17 years ago.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment,” Henley said. “You still carry that sense of pride with you.”

E-mail: cjs2137@columbia.edu