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New York City is America’s financial capital. Hollywood is America’s entertainment capital. And Utah is America’s wilderness therapy capital.
Also known as adventure therapy or outdoor behavioral healthcare, wilderness therapy is based on the idea that spending significant time outdoors can have a healing effect on youth who struggle with mental, emotional and behavioral issues.
Utah’s ample supply of wilderness and a historical connection to the industry mean the state is home to more wilderness therapy companies than any other state, and it has become an important cottage industry in some of Utah’s rural areas. These companies say they can help with addictions, eating disorders, antisocial behavior, social anxiety and many other issues. Some accept adult clients, but most programs are geared toward youth.
Wilderness therapy advocates have fought to establish the industry as a safe and effective option following a series of tragedies in the ‘90s and early 2000s that marred its public image. They say those days are behind them, and their programs are now a safe and effective option for families with young people in need of help.
Utah currently lists 12 programs across the state that are licensed as outdoor youth treatment programs, where clients spend the majority of their time outdoors. This doesn’t include any of the state’s many residential therapy programs that may also include occasional outdoor activities as part of their treatment programs. They are located in all areas of the state, including Southern Utah, the Wasatch Mountains and along the Wasatch Front.
An Early Pioneer
Utah has been involved in the wilderness therapy industry since its beginnings. In the 1960s, a Brigham Young University student named Larry Dean Olsen began leading wilderness trips with students who had been struggling in school. Soon, he began leading more expeditions with youth struggling with a variety of problems. Eventually, he went on to create the Anasazi Foundation in Arizona, one of the first wilderness therapy programs.
More programs began throughout the state in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the industry nationwide suffered a series of setbacks due to the deaths of multiple minors during the ‘90s and early 2000s, including five in Utah. The deaths were often the result of dehydration and overheating or accidents in the backcountry. The most recent death in Utah came in 2002, when a 14-year-old boy from Texas died of hyperthermia (heat illness) while hiking. Each case resulted in increased regulation of the industry on the state level, and in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office held hearings to investigate potential abuses.
Derek Daley, programs director at Legacy Outdoor Adventures, which is based in the Southern Utah town of Loa, says these deaths occurred because of a few corner-cutting programs with irresponsible staff members. Since then, he says, members of the industry have done a lot to hold themselves and each other accountable for safety, on top of the increased regulations.
In 1996, a group of wilderness programs convened to create the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC) in order to share best practices and establish standards during a time when there were few government regulations on the industry. The council is also currently working on establishing a system for programs to gain independent accreditation, which will require programs to exceed state regulations.
The outdoors are an ideal location for mental and emotional healing, says Michael Gass, a professor in the College of Health and Human Services at the University of New Hampshire and research director for the OBHIC. Being in the wilderness forces kids to stop thinking about the social expectations that contributed to their problems when they were still at home, he says.
“For most kids, going into the wilderness is a foreign environment with physical and social differences,” Gass says. “When they go into an adventure experience, they don’t know who they’re supposed to be, so they just be themselves.”
Being in the wild makes it more difficult for clients to avoid their problems, Gass says. Kids in these programs have usually been through many other therapies and other interventions that haven’t been successful, often because they refuse to engage and can simply leave. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re 60 miles from civilization.
Daley says the philosophy of most programs has changed in the past few decades. They used to be like a military boot camp, designed to break clients down and modify their behavior through the use of long hikes and deprivation. That philosophy was not only dangerous, but also ineffective at bringing about lasting change in clients’ lives, he says.