Wilderness Therapy

There is no better place than in nature to heal, grow and learn. Combined with a community of peers, led by professional guides, therapists, and doctors, our students' immersion in the wilderness makes for an extraordinary setting in which to gain insight into one’s past, learn about oneself, and find hope and motivation for one’s future.

boys team at sunset in desert
Learn about wilderness therapy at Open Sky:

Therapy Defined

Definition from the Mayo Clinic

Psychotherapy is a general term for a process of treating mental and emotional disorders by talking about your condition and related issues with a mental health provider.

During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition, mood, feelings, thoughts and behavior. Using the insights and knowledge you gain in psychotherapy, you pick up healthy coping skills and stress management. Psychotherapy often can be successfully completed in just a few months, but in the case of a severe mental illness, long-term treatment may be helpful.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/psychotherapy/MY00186

The Open Sky clinical approach utilizes the latest in evidence-based clinical modalities integrated with innovative, well researched, mindfulness and holistic healing practices. The Open Sky clinical team is comprised of caring, educated, experienced therapists, who have worked in the wilderness therapy treatment field for many years. Each student is assigned a therapist for the duration of the program.

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Wilderness Therapy Programs

students hiking in colorado boys teamDr. Keith Russell, a leading academic researcher on the effects of wilderness therapy, has found that wilderness therapy programs have the following characteristics:
  • The program is licensed by a state agency
  • Clients have regular contact with a licensed mental health practitioner (clinical therapist)
  • The therapist works with the family to help them understand the nature of the client’s behaviors and enhance treatment objectives
  • Field guides have training in specialty areas appropriate for the clientele (substance abuse, de-escalation skills, et cetera)
  • Clients have individualized treatment plans that are monitored by licensed therapeutic staff
  • Formal evaluations of treatment effectiveness are conducted to determine treatment effectiveness
  • Therapists work with aftercare services and the family to ensure that progress made by the client can be maintained
  • Wilderness therapy takes place in a group setting where group development processes facilitate learning
  • The outdoor environment is utilized to help the client leave their familiar culture behind and have a unique experience that will facilitate meeting specified learning objectives
Open Sky meets all of these criteria.
  1. Russell, K. C. (2001). What is Wilderness Therapy? The Journal of Experiential Education. Fall 2001, Volume 24, No. 2. pp. 70-79.

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Wilderness Therapy is Not a Boot Camp

student and guide People often confuse wilderness therapy with juvenile boot camps. Boot camps have their origin in the juvenile justice system and utilize military style approaches to discipline to change the student. The philosophy of wilderness therapy is one in which the staff develop relationships based on compassion and respect and utilize nature as a teacher. Boot camp programs utilize physical and psychological aggression toward students while wilderness therapy programs create therapeutic opportunities as students face the unpredictable circumstances that emerge in nature. In wilderness therapy, students must endure the natural hardship of living in the outdoors, creating a great opportunity for building confidence and self-reliance and learning to work with others. Boot camps use coercion and obtain control through the use of intimidation and manipulation and take advantage of a person’s fears. Wilderness therapy and boot camps are completely different forms of working with youth and are based on entirely opposing philosophical approaches. Wilderness therapy is based on compassion and the honorable journey of self-discovery.

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Wilderness Therapy as Healer

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” - John Muir

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.” - Anne Frank

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” - Rachel Carson

Since time, immemorial people have gone to the wilderness to seek vision, experience a deeper sense of self and reality, and find healing. Nature has a certain kind of light and clarity that speaks clearly to the soul, calling it forth. When people go to nature, they touch a deeper part of themselves, a part that has been hidden by the distractions and hectic pace of daily life. When people go to the wild, they go because the soul longs for connection and needs to be heard.

Open Sky believes that there is no better place to heal, reestablish one’s purpose and meaning than in nature. For centuries, great spiritual teachers have sought time alone in nature for guidance and direction. The wilderness provides a peaceful and serene context in which to reconnect with oneself and with the world at large and to find direction amidst the challenges and hardships of life.

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Wilderness Therapy as Teacher

“Choose only one master - Nature.” - Rembrandt

“What I know of the divine sciences and Holy Scriptures, I learned in woods and fields. I have no other masters than the beeches and the oaks.” - Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we only will tune in.” - George Washington Carver

guide teaching with mountain behindIn this modern age, we have taken away much of the challenge of our physical existence, so much so, that arguably we have created an unhealthy culture where our material abundance has led to the highest rates of obesity and apathy ever known. Living in the outdoors requires work: demands of the weather, of walking everywhere you go, of learning to live without furniture and a bed means that you learn how to take care of yourself in ways that are easily taken for granted everyday. There is no shower, bed, toilet, oven, microwave, television, computer, lighting; all these basic amenities are missing. Students then learn to make do with what they can do for themselves; specifically they learn how to take care of themselves completely without the modern conveniences their lives are propped up by. This engenders a sense of empowerment, of being capable of successfully keeping themselves physically comfortable and safe: warm when it is cold, dry when it is wet and fed when they are hungry. They become students of life in its most natural form.

Nature also provides the best classroom to learn one of the essential truths: that with every action, there is a subsequent reaction; for every cause, there is an effect. In essence, moving out of childhood is moving into conscious awareness in which we no longer are a function of our trauma, our family story, our incorrect beliefs or our impulsive conditioning (involuntary conditioning). We aim to help each of our students learn that they have the ability to make choices with what they do and how they respond to circumstances in their lives. Wilderness is the single best context in which to learn this truth. For example, if a student sleeps poorly because the wind whipped their shelter all night because they didn’t secure it tightly and then is grumpy and irritable all day, we help them connect the dots between their shelter building effort (such attributes as attention to detail, prioritizing quality and craftsmanship, not being lazy, not settling for just good enough) and how they slept and, therefore, how they feel (the result of not doing an adequate job of securing their shelter). With this simple connection, students make a massive leap, a leap towards understanding that what you put into life, you get out of life. Nature is the teacher, an authority everyone respects. Connecting the dots between behavior and nature’s consequences empowers students to make intelligent choices and understand how nature naturally supports this.

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Wilderness Therapy and Community

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” - Henry David Thoreau

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.” - William Blake

circle-at-student-day-celebreationIn wilderness, distractions such as social and economic status, image and materialism are irrelevant. Nature does not treat any one person any differently than any other no matter their status or their possessions. Wilderness provides a neutral context to create a community with intention, one based on essential fundamentals of human community: trust, honor, integrity, effort, authenticity, and compassion. Led by field guides and other members of the Open Sky team, our students are supported in living out many of these ideals in a practical, real way.

In addition, the rigors and demands of living simply in the wilderness require cooperation and participation. With groups rarely exceeding 10 students, living together 24 hours a day, seven days a week and being without the fragmentation of our civilized communities of work, school, and home, there is no place to get lost or to be forgotten. Students at Open Sky become bonded together with the simple cause of just living simply in small bands; eating when hungry, staying dry when it is wet, remaining warm when it is cold, supporting each other when it is difficult, and sharing expectations in order to get along.

In an intimate, supportive and intentional community of people, there is the chance to learn about oneself, one’s role in the world, one’s purpose and the importance of what it simply means to be human.

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