An analysis of 12 adventure therapy programs has discovered a strong safety record for the outdoor therapy programs.
Adventure therapy is a prescriptive use of wilderness adventure experiences to improve the mental health of clients.
The approach is primarily geared toward adolescents and is often seen as a treatment of “last resort” for these youth, who typically present with three or more dysfunctional behaviors such as depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
University of New Hampshire researchers found that adolescents participating in adventure therapy programs are at significantly less risk of injury than those playing football and were three times less likely to visit the emergency room for an injury than if they were at home.
These findings, reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, are based on an analysis of risk management data from 12 programs providing outdoor behavioral healthcare in 2011.
“After ‘does this program work?’, the question most asked by people considering adventure therapy is ‘will my child be safe?’” said Michael Gass, Ph.D., professor of outdoor education at UNH, who wrote the article with lead author Stephen Javorski.
“While no one can guarantee the unconditional safety of any child, we can now show the relative risk levels for adolescents. This study shows there is actually less risk to participants on wilderness therapy programs, when they are conducted correctly, than to adolescents in their normal everyday activities.”
Gass, a leading expert in the field, estimates that there are more than 200 such programs nationwide ranging from multimillion dollar programs to individual counselors who might informally take a group or class into the woods.
For the current study, Gass and Javorski looked at incident and illness data collected by the 12 adventure therapy programs that comprise the Outdoor Behavioral Health Industry Council for 2011.
Analyzing injuries that required a client be removed from regular programming for more than 24 hours – including injuries treated in the field as well as those that required evacuation to a medical facility – the adventure therapy programs had an injury rate of .11 injuries per 1,000 days in 2011, or one injury for every 9,091 client-days.
The estimated national average rate of injuries for adolescents treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms was three times that rate (.38 per 1,000 days).
Adventure therapy programs boast even stronger safety records when compared to other common activities of adolescents. Injuries during high school football games are more than 140 times greater than those in adventure therapy programs, which boast lower injury rates than snowboarding, downhill skiing, mountain biking, backpacking, and football practice.
“I’m hoping that this research will counter the public perception that these programs are dangerous,” said Javorski. “Well-managed programs are not dangerous, they’re not exposing kids to undue risk, and they’re not overusing physical restraints.”
The researchers offer several reasons for the dramatic relative safety of these programs. As the field has developed, says Gass, risk management standards have improved; he notes that the programs in the OBHIC are among the leaders in the field. And our perception of risk colors how we view the risk of “everyday” activities.
“Driving a car is more dangerous than hiking in the wilderness, particularly with trained staff,” Gass said. “These programs remove adolescents from other accepted yet higher-risk situations like driving.”
What’s more, the effectiveness of these programs makes them not just safe but saviors to parents of the very troubled adolescent clients. “Many parents say, ‘this is the one thing that can save my child,’” Gass said.
He and his colleagues are researching how and why adventure therapy works, but he is confident that their potency is at the intersection of adventure programming and therapy.
“The pill that we’re offering is the positive use of stress coated by appropriate levels of care and support,” said Gass.
Source: University of New Hampshire