Healing Through a Connection with Nature

Solo on West Coast discovery - Credit: Chris Walker from Outward Bound Canada

At-risk youth building self-esteem through adventurous outdoor therapy

In Canada, there are at-risk young people in every community. Youth who are considered “at-risk” are more likely to have a difficult transition to adulthood due to a variety of circumstances which may include family structure, employment status, income, mental health, victimization, substance abuse and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. They may become involved in unsafe or even criminal behaviour.

Teens who are at-risk may show signs at school, academically, emotionally or socially that are indicative of their situation. Guidance counsellors, teachers and other educational staff are often some of the first to recognize these behaviours and may be able to help their students access the appropriate assistance for their individual needs.

Adventure-Based Therapy, Outdoor Experiential Education, Wilderness Therapy – the industry refers to these programs in a number of ways – are unique programs utilized by many young people to help them cope with mental health, substance abuse and other issues. These programs may or may not incorporate a formal therapeutic component but have proven to be life-altering experiences for the participants.

Outward Bound Canada is designed to teach individuals outdoor skills like backpacking, dogsledding, canoeing and camping while providing an often profound expedition of self-discovery. Since its inception in 1969, Outward Bound Canada has lead over 150,000 people on their own unique journey.

Dr. Robert H. Wallis is the Principal, Curriculum and Education Manager at Outward Bound Canada. “Adventure-based therapy is using adventure, challenge and connection to the natural world combined with intentional facilitation by therapy professionals to improve the mental health of participants based on the specific needs of an individual – who may be dealing with such things as addictions recovery, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or depression. At Outward Bound Canada, we do not run therapy programs. We do; however, see the therapeutic benefits of our adventurous outdoor programs, and sometimes invite professional therapists on our courses from the organization we are working with who facilitate specific therapeutic activities, but generally we do not design our courses around Adventure-Based Therapy,” he says. “We facilitate activities that may be deemed ‘therapeutic’ or known to have therapeutic properties or outcomes: For example, we take a ‘disconnect to reconnect’ approach to outdoor adventure that requires participants to disconnect with the digital world and reconnect with nature. Our programs are focused on connecting with self, each other, and the natural world.”

Wendigo Lake Expeditions is located approximately three hours north of Toronto, near Algonquin Provincial Park. Their programs include Project D.A.R.E. (Development through Adventure, Responsibility and Education), a therapeutic wilderness program for male youth in open custody, as well as ACHIEVE, delivering customized educational, developmental, and therapeutic programs and workshops designed for professional development, schools and youth.

Jeremie Carreau, Deputy Director at Wendigo Lakes explains their philosophy about Adventure-Based Therapy, “Adventure is a vehicle for change, and we train our people to draw upon various complimentary modalities, theories, and techniques (e.g., Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Solution-Focused Therapy, Experiential Learning Cycle, etc.) in a very pragmatic way to encourage change talk and action.”

Activities and challenges in Adventure Therapy or Outdoor Wilderness programs can include short or longer expeditions, seasonal trips and plenty of opportunity for self-reflection.

Carreau explains, “At Wendigo Lake Expeditions, youth have seasonally appropriate opportunities for extended remote wilderness expeditions (canoe trips, backpacking/hiking trips, winter camping trips), and participate in a variety of adventure activities including but not limited to Low and High Ropes course elements, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, hiking, swimming, fishing, and endless problem-solving and initiative activities. They also work on high school credits throughout their stay in our programs, and have responsibilities for cooking, cleaning, and various other life-skills-oriented activities. Additionally, youth and their case management team identify individualized goal areas that are built into activities and challenges.”

At Outward Bound, “Our courses build experience through authentic challenge – three to 32 day long expeditions that include long hikes on the trail, canoeing on lakes with a headwind, 2km+ portages, mountain peaks and sea kayaking. At some of our sites we have climbing towers, dogsledding, and surfing. We scaffold our programs to build comfort, trust, and as the course progresses we build up the challenge – our instructors step back and let the students take the lead – each participant takes a turn at leading the group. In this role they lead (with the support of their group), and are allowed to fail – while still under the risk oversight of Outward Bound’s expert instructors – and subsequently get feedback from their peers, their instructors, and themselves,” says Wallis.

Adventure-based therapy and outdoor experiential education have a proven history of success.

Wallis is a firm believer in the process. “Our programs really expose the effectiveness of meeting students where they’re at, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization). A student cannot focus on learning complex skills when they are still concerned with what they will eat and where they will sleep. Our programs put students in unfamiliar surroundings, and with unfamiliar people, and in going through this first level of anxiety, we strip down the facades that we all create and get to the kernel of the person. Going through this process puts the students on a level playing field with each other, allowing us and their peers to then build that person back up with self-esteem and confidence in who they are,” he enthuses.

Carreau agrees, “For many youth clients, adventure experiences are novel and exciting, causing them to lean into the challenge in a way that therapy on a couch can never accomplish. With considered intent, instructors engage clients in reflective exercises before, during, and after the experiences to help them see parallels with their own lives and transfer that learning accordingly.”

Wallis recalls a particularly memorable success story, “I ran an Outward Bound program through a residential care centre in Guelph focussed on mental health, working with patients in post-traumatic stress recovery. Two recreation therapists were focussed on the patients’ therapy, while we sequenced the program around building confidence, comfort levels and trust with each other. The patients had experienced significant trauma, and were residents of the program for a minimum of 10 weeks. Most were very dubious of our program, but would come and ‘see what it’s like’ from the sidelines. Out of the 100 patients we saw in the 10 programs we ran, all were active participants in our activities by the end of the program – and many described the experience as the first time they ‘felt human’ since before their trauma.”

By supporting young people, Adventure Therapy programs are strengthening families and educators, and contributing to a positive future not just for the individuals involved, but for the community as a whole.

Carreau maintains, “Quite honestly, I think they (families) mostly appreciate that their youth is getting the help that they need. Often when they are referred to us, they have tried other options and approaches which have not worked out. We don’t have a silver bullet. But we do have a novel approach and exceptional frontline instructors which respectively make buy-in easier and have the largest impact towards positive change in the work we do with youth and families.”

Wallis adds, “From a teacher’s perspective, outdoor education also addresses many of the challenges seen in the classroom, such as addressing multiple intelligences with an interdisciplinary approach that creates situations in which students are invested as they solve problems as a team. On many occasions, students who struggle in the everyday classroom environment thrive particularly well in outdoor education – for example those on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD or those that become bored and unruly because they need greater stimulus and buy-in.”

With youth under the age of 20 making up approximately a quarter of Canada’s population, programs to aid young people who may be at risk are more important than ever.

For more information about Outward Bound Canada: www.outwardbound.ca For more information about Wendigo Lakes Expeditions: www.wendigolake.com

By: Jackie Fritz