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Boys, bears, bugs and battling depression: Wilderness therapy treats mental health disorders

July 14, 2015 0 Comments

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Whether for a child, teenager, adolescent or adult, it is hard to clear the mind and get away from the pollution, work stress, car horns and “noise of society.” A stimulation intensive world filled with triggers can easily set off underlying stressors and emotions. An individual who struggles with depression or anxiety may be more deeply affected by the high-stress of a technologically controlled society. Sometimes taking a break and going outside can restore inner peace and help those who are battling with mental illnesses or substance abuse. Nature is everywhere and available to everyone, free of charge. The awakening of the senses and mindfulness of one’s surroundings in nature is just the opposite of sitting behind a computer or a smartphone all day.

Whether it is hiking, fishing, camping, white water rafting or canoeing, nature immersion is a great way to learn how to cope with some of the most difficult inner struggles. Trying to navigate a dense forest, start a friction fire or build a shelter can be some of the most challenging tasks and, yet, some of the most rewarding experiences. Encountering challenges in nature can bring out raw, uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings that allow one to learn self-motivation, self-reflection and teamwork, all of which are lifelong skills that can be learned, practiced and improved upon while being immersed in the wilderness.

Wilderness therapy has been around since the 1800s when early pioneers, such a John Muir, set out to explore the wilderness, but wilderness therapy had not been used for troubled teens and adolescents as part of cognitive-behavioral therapy until recent decades. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves,” Muir once wrote.

Reflecting on one’s inner self while out in nature through journaling or writing letters is also a behavioral therapy technique and coping mechanism that can be practiced in regular everyday life. In addition to journaling, working with others in group activities in nature can aid an individual to overcome social phobias, mental illnesses, substance abuse and also help the person to develop a great self-love and confidence.

Wilderness therapists, as well as outdoor educators, have learned to incorporate nature’s healing effects into programs that aid and restore troubled youth. The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative was established in 1999 to research the beneficial impact nature can have on emotionally and mentally wounded adolescents. This organization has performed numerous research studies, which have demonstrated the benefits of wilderness therapy on adolescents struggling with a variety of mental health and addiction concerns.

The Boy Scouts of America is the world’s largest youth-based development program that teaches survival skills, leadership, teamwork and the importance of responsibility to help young males succeed in society. Although this is not a mental treatment organization, thousands of young boys have learned life-altering lessons from being a part of the Boy Scouts.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” the award-winning, famous, nonfiction book written by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail solo to recover from her mental and emotional wounds that were inflicted upon her, describes the challenges she had to overcome. “The staying and doing it, in spite of everything. In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations. The exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hiked 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself.” This portrays how time in nature can have the biggest healing effects on some of the deepest wounds.

White River Academy is an all-boys adolescent treatment center located in Utah that incorporates teamwork, development and experiencing nature to help treat and heal the deep wounds that may have been inflicted upon these young boys. For more information, call White River Academy’s 24/7 helpline at 866-300-0616.

Written by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health Group writer

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