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Wilderness therapy and spirituality

Key Message

Spirituality is a function of wilderness therapy that allowed the students to develop introspection, community engagement and lived practices that promote wellness. This was emphasized by the theme that stated wilderness therapy is successful because of its model that stresses connection to self, others and new life habits.


Rothwell, E. (2008). Wilderness therapy and spirituality. Masters Thesis, Smith College, School for Social Work, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Wilderness therapy is a therapeutic process intended for young people struggling with a variety of mental health concerns. There is limited research about this rapidly growing treatment modality, but what is known is that wilderness therapy seems to be one of the best way to positively effect young people because of the research regarding recidivism rates, symptom reduction and client/parent reports. Specifically within wilderness therapy research, this study looks at the possibility of spirituality as a factor of the wilderness therapy process. Spirituality also seems to be a concept that has crept into therapeutic work at a rate ahead of known research about it.

The research states that most Americans encounter spirituality in their lives, but most therapists do not feel prepared to address it. This study attempts to examine both concepts of wilderness therapy and spirituality in a therapeutic process with the question, “Can spirituality be a part of wilderness therapy?”

To most appropriately answer this question, the researcher interviewed 12 wilderness therapy staff members who had significant time with the students.

Even though wilderness therapy has been making its mark for over 25 years, there is not an abundant amount of literature on the topic (Powch, 1994). The literature that is available creates an important foundation that this research project will build on. The literature suggests that wilderness therapy can be more affective for adolescents than any other traditional therapy model. Researcher suggests that wilderness therapy is worth continuing to examine because of its promising statistics on symptom reduction and recidivism for appropriate cliental (Russell and Phillips-Miller, 2002; Russell, 2003; Williams, 2000). This project will continue to build on already existing knowledge with a qualitative examination of wilderness therapy. The researcher will specifically delve into the possibility of spirituality dwelling in the wilderness therapy process. This is a subject with little to no research previously existing. Spirituality is something that can arguably be found in most arenas of life. It often emerges in traditional therapy sessions although it is often skirted around or glossed over for a number of reasons (Walker et al 2003; Pargament 2001. This study explores the possibility that spirituality can be found in wilderness therapy as well. Several researchers argue that nature is a key component to connection with spirituality, and some go so far as to say it is necessary (Burton, 2002; Powch, 1994; Stone, 1971). Given this information, it is worth investigating whether forms of spirituality are present in wilderness therapy programs. This question was explored by interviewing wilderness therapy counselors. These participants work and live with students in their programs and have the most exposure to the experiences students have while in the programs.


Overall, the interviews revealed that spirituality is not currently addressed in these programs in any planned, structured way. However, the data reported that spirituality still seems to be a function of wilderness therapy that allows students to grow therapeutically in ways that parallel the goals for these wilderness therapy programs. In turn, it also seems that the structure of the programs, especially working intimately with nature, facilitated opportunities for students to have spiritual experiences and exposure.

These participants also elaborated on what values they associated with their spiritual beliefs. These seem to break down easily into four categories:
1. connection to self,
2. connection to others,
3. religious/spiritual ceremonial practices and values, and
4. connection to nature. Three participants (25%) stated that their spirituality was an individual endeavor to know themselves better and hold themselves accountable.

Wilderness therapy programs essentially involve four aspects:
1. emersion into a wilderness setting;
2. living with peers;
3. group and individual therapeutic processes and
4. outdoor and psycho education. Staff use these aspects to identify and work on behavioral issues, improve social skills and improve emotional identification and regulation (Russell and Phillips-Miller, 2002).

These four themes, participants’ spiritualities, successes in wilderness therapy, spiritual growth for students and criticisms and limitations unfold to suggest that spiritual experiences and opportunities can serve a function in the success of wilderness therapy and may also be harmful to the therapeutic process. Some positive possibilities include, students ability to learn a deeper understanding of themselves, communicate and connect with others in unique and different wayas and learn healthy habits that they can hold on to after graduating the programs. On the other hand, is spiritual integration could also be a distraction from the necessary work needed in a behavioral, concrete model. It also runs the risk of over influencing students in vulnerable positions and could cause parents to loose interest in sending their children to a place that will involve spiritual education and exposure. As this data analysis process unfolds, an interesting dynamic evolves. As spiritual growth in the way of introspection, community engagement and wellness practices create successful students, it seems the wilderness therapeutic structures can simultaneously create opportunities for spiritual growth. These two processes seem to feed off each other in a way that is beneficial for the students. The wilderness therapeutic structures set up ceremonies, rituals, requirements and exposure to nature in ways that allow students the space to grow spiritually whether it is the intent of the program or not.

The overarching theme discovered was the notion that spirituality is a function of wilderness therapy that allowed the students to develop introspection, community engagement and lived practices that promote wellness. This was emphasized by the theme that stated wilderness therapy is successful because of its model that stresses connection to self, others and new life habits. Spirituality was reported to have emerged in wilderness therapy This theme indicated that spiritual practices in these programs, whether intentional or not, promote the same criteria of connection to self, others and nature just as does wilderness therapy. Spirituality adds to what was essential for a successful wilderness therapeutic experience.

Additional Information

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Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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