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YorActivist: Why Wilderness Therapy Is So Problematic

Content Warning: Sensitive topics

Image Credits: Unsplash

Phrases such as the ‘troubled teen industry’ and ‘teens for profit’ have made their way across TikTok, but what exactly do they mean?

So-called ‘wilderness therapy’ is an initiative that aims to help young people who are struggling with addiction or mental health issues by immersing them in nature. This may not sound too troubling, but the reality is much darker.

There have been accounts of people being ‘legally kidnapped’ while they were sleeping and taken to the wilderness for treatment. Driven in the darkness of night by strangers and forced to hike for days on end, many would claim that this form of treatment is unethical and abusive.

Parents sign over guardianship, making programme facilitators legal guardians of the vulnerable young people. One TikTok user claimed that the programme victimises ‘untrained, underprepared, scared and vulnerable children [who] are forced to carry heavy bags on long hikes every day’.

Struggling parents at their wit’s ends are lured in by the promise of healing and recovery for their child at a much cheaper price than traditional therapy. Traumatised, isolated, and exhausted, adolescents are forced to hike for days on end and have limited access to basic human resources, or even human rights. Pictures of smiling teens are sent back to parents, hiding the dark reality of what their child is enduring.

Utah is a very popular location for wilderness programmes due to its limited restrictions onlegal guardianship. The exact number of wilderness programmes in the US is unknown due to many states not requiring them to register with a regulatory board, therefore allowing them to operate however they choose.

Many insurances cover around half the cost of wilderness therapy for US families, withothers charging up to $20,000 for ‘specialist’ treatment. This is comparable to the $75-150 average cost per session for counselling in the US.

Individuals have shared their accounts on the internet, using the hashtag ‘#breakingcodesilence’. Horrifying testimonies of being denied medical care, suffering heatstroke, and having to wear dirty clothing are not uncommon.

An article for Rolling Stone states that ‘in Florida, which bans the inspection of private, faith-based facilities, there have been at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect over the pastdecade.’ Humiliation techniques, such as waving around menstrual stained underwear, are used to punish girls for being ‘unclean’.

Gay conversion therapy is also commonplace, particularly at faith-based institutions. As many religious organisations are not regulated, they are able to operate by their own beliefs and rules; there are many overlaps between the abuse endured in gay conversion therapy and wilderness therapy. In a paper titled ‘It’s Torture not Therapy’, forced confinement, behavioural conditioning, and food deprivations are all reported as methods used to ‘fix’ homosexuality in teenagers.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, there have been five teenage deaths while in the care of Utah-based wilderness therapy programs since 1990. Untreated medical conditions, heat exhaustion, asphyxiation, and falling due to unsafe conditions are among the causes. Carelessness on the part of superiors is often to blame. Forcing young people to hike in extreme weather conditions, medical negligence, and restraint are not uncommon in victim reports.

The restraint of disabled and vulnerable individuals is a form of abuse and should not be commonplace in the treatment of those who are already at-risk. Adults weighing twice, or even triple, the weight of the young people are often too forceful in their attempts of restraint, causing suffocation and injury to the skull.

Suicide is another common cause of death in wilderness therapy, demonstrating the severity of the programmes. 14-year-old Ryan Lewis and 16-year-old Chad Andrew Franza hung themselves while on the programme on separate occasions. 

This isn’t a faraway issue. There are wilderness programmes, also called ecotherapy, operating in the UK as locally as Cumbria. A programme run in Essex in 2020 charged £450 for two nights of “feel[ing] more relaxed, and less pressured, and using natural tools and exploration the work is more creative and makes engaging much easier”. While the UK equivalent seems less detrimental than the American- run programmes, parents of young people are likely to be convinced by these programmes without truly knowing what they entail.

Survivors are calling for an end to the abuse of adolescents in wilderness therapy. It is unethical to charge parents for false promises and the abuse of their children under the pretence of ‘treatment’. There needs to be more regulation of these facilities, as well as greater transparency of what parents are signing their child up for. Nobody should be humiliated, tortured, or put at greater risk because of mental health issues.