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The Changing Face of Wilderness Therapy

A greater number of substance abuse interventions are available for teens than ever before. One critical development has been the introduction of wilderness therapy as a safe and efficacious treatment modality for substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues. Because wilderness therapy programs take young people out of their collusive home environment and away from their negative peer group and sources of drugs, they have become a popular choice for families with a loved one struggling with substance abuse.

The Importance of Early Intervention
According to Melvin Cates, MA, LCCA, WEMT, executive director of Lone Star Expeditions, a licensed wilderness treatment program for adolescents in Texas, marijuana and alcohol are still the main culprits that lead teens down the wrong path, though prescription and over-the-counter drugs are becoming more prevalent and certain illicit drugs continue to be a problem. A critical step going forward, he says, will be earlier intervention, and educating parents about the disease of addiction and the need for prompt and ongoing treatment.

"Many parents recognize the serious implications of their children's drug use and capitalize on our program before experimental usage has crossed over into regular use," he says. "But in the current social climate, many families are waiting until their child's issues are so acute, they need intensive, long-term follow-up care."

Troy Faddis, the clinical director at Aspen Achievement Academy, one of the oldest and most reputable wilderness programs for adolescents, has also noticed that parents are waiting to get help for their teens until the situation is almost life or death. He says that even when parents reach out for help, they want one intervention to "fix" their child rather than treating recovery like the long-term treatment issue it really is.

Aftercare and Education
In the future, John Courtney, LCDC, a substance abuse counselor at Lone Star Expeditions, believes extended aftercare for at least six months will become a defining piece of every adolescent substance abuse program. Outfitted with proper referrals and a "trail map" before they leave, young people are in the best possible place to avoid relapse and maintain their sobriety, says Courtney.

Courtney also notes that sex education is currently missing from most teen substance abuse programs. There's a clear link between sexual activity and the use of drugs and alcohol. Many teens abuse substances to build the courage to approach the boy or girl they like at a party, and others use drugs or alcohol as a form of sexual coercion.

"One in five 14-year-old girls has a sexually transmitted disease," he states. "That disturbing fact makes it clear, at least to me, that we need to do a better job of educating our young people and addressing the issues that are impacting their lives right now. I believe that when given the right opportunity and the right information, the majority of adolescents make strong, healthy choices. It's our job, along with parents, to give teens the information and the opportunity."

Alternative Therapies
In the wilderness field, the future also holds great promise for expanded complementary alternative therapies like yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture, says Laurie Wilmot, LCSW, a therapist at a wilderness program for teens ages 13 to 17 in Oregon. She also recommends that parents seek out professionals who are highly regarded and relatable, and who talk to adolescents in a real, honest way.

"Teens want to be edgy," Wilmot advises. "Programs that incorporate lots of physical activity and alternative treatments like healing touch, massage, and energy work will have a better chance of getting through to teens than programs that come across as boring and overly clinical."

Wilmot also notes a strong trend developing among young people toward compulsive gaming, online gambling, and use of the Internet for pornography and social networking. Substance abuse is closely related, in her experience, to anti-social behaviors or a lack of social skills, as all are signs that a teen is struggling to adapt to the world around him. Wilmot recommends that parents monitor how often their child is on the Internet and how they communicate with others, set limits around those behaviors, and get help early on.

Being aware of the changes taking place in wilderness therapy, and in adolescent treatment overall, can help parents of a struggling teen make a well-informed choice of treatment. As more opportunities become available and as the industry responds to the interests and needs of young people and their families, the field will continue to grow for the benefit of future generations.

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Adirondack Leadership Expeditions is a wilderness program for troubled teens that promotes growth through a focus on insight-oriented experiences.

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