A walk on the wild side could be what the doctor ordered

Into the woods for wilderness therapy in Maine

STOW, Maine — Finding the right treatment for teenagers with mental health disorders is crucial, but some young people don’t respond to being in either a therapist’s office or a hospital-based program.

A new program in New England, called Wilderness Therapy, uses physical challenges and adventure experiences as a supplement to traditional mental health programs.

“It brings up whatever it is we are working on a little bit more quickly, and in that way, causes us to have to look at it,” explained Nichol Ernst, the executive director at Summit Achievement -- a licensed residential treatment center in Stow, Maine."You can’t hide who you really are if you go camping with someone for a couple of days. I think that one of the ways to really address mental health issues it so to work on being present, and being aware, and the wilderness has a really powerful way of doing that.”

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We met a group of Summit residents in the White Mountains along the Maine/New Hampshire border. They generally attend for an eight-week period, mixing their time between being in the wilderness and attending classes.

A high school junior we’re calling “Bob” was one of the attendees. He comes from a suburb outside a city in the northeast and was once on his school’s rowing team. He says he got caught up in illegal activities that caused a downward spiral in his mental health.

“Stealing kind of ruined by life, and my mental health went downhill too. Depression and anxiety got really bad," he said.

Bob wasn’t happy when his parents first sent him to Summit but is now seeing its value.

“It’s refreshing, honestly," he said. "You get caught up in the world around you with social media and such that you kind of lose touch with the real world, and you don’t see what’s around you. You even lose touch with who you are.”

A study out of the University of New Hampshire found Wilderness Therapy can deliver better results than traditional therapy.

“More effective and less expensive,” said Professor Mike Gass, an author of the study and an expert on outdoor education.

Gass says the need to think outside the box is greater than ever with the challenges facing today’s teens.

“There’s never been a time to be an adolescent addicted to drugs that’s been more difficult than right now, just because of the combination of drugs," Gass said. "They are just so addictive.”

Bob says he has hope for the first time in a while, and that he is proof Wilderness Therapy can work.

As he finishes up his stay in the mountains, he’s thinking about going to college and studying psychology.

“You get out to a place like this and you feel more in touch with yourself," he said. "Your body feels better. You just start to feel better as a person, and overall, you learn to love yourself again.”

Wilderness therapy is not always covered by insurance, but the UNH researchers are hoping their results will encourage more insurers to change that policy.