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Wilderness Therapy in the Media

Residential treatment options for young people have recently received intense media attention, with much of the coverage focusing on negative portrayals of therapeutic programs, including wilderness therapy programs.

This attention gained traction after media personality Paris Hilton spoke out about her experience in treatment centers as a teenager in the late 1990s. It has been heartbreaking to learn Hilton’s story as well as other allegations of mistreatment in residential treatment centers, and Open Sky condemns programs that use punitive or coercive means to enact behavioral change. We stand with victims who have experienced neglect, abuse, or trauma and support the mission to provide struggling youth with safe, ethical care. We encourage anyone who has experienced abuse or mistreatment in any program to report concerns to the state licensing board that oversees the program.

Fortunately, since Hilton’s experience in treatment over 20 years ago, the landscape of treatment options for youth has evolved significantly, and programs that do not center client care as their highest priority have largely ceased to operate. However, many critics of therapeutic programs, such as the Breaking Code Silence movement, have spread misleading narratives about wilderness therapy. They do not recognize the research, evidence, or personal experiences that indicate the effectiveness of many wilderness programs and instead focus on:

  • circulating sensational anecdotes from under-regulated and outdated behavior modification programs that do not represent current practices and standards;
  • flooding the web with negative reviews, regardless of personal experience with the program;
  • managing information on online forums and discussion boards so they do not allow for open dialogue or opposing views or experiences.

As such, families considering Open Sky might encounter criticism of residential and wilderness therapy in general, and even Open Sky specifically. We understand how distressing it can be to read such information, especially when seeking treatment for a loved one, and hope to provide a more complete picture of who we are and what we do.

Below, you will find information about the standards and values that inform our work at Open Sky, how we treat the young people and families who entrust us with their care, as well as actions families can take when making treatment decisions.

What Can You Do? How Families Can Make Informed Decisions

We strive to empower families with the information they need to make confident and informed decisions. Below we have included considerations and recommendations families can employ as they navigate treatment options.

To support the most beneficial and impactful outcomes for our students and families, Open Sky is committed to maintaining and exceeding the highest level of standards, protocols, and best practices, as defined by multiple licensing and accreditation entities.

Open Sky operates in two states and as such, must adhere to the standards of two state licensing agencies. Colorado and Utah take their roles with respect to licensing and monitoring seriously, as does Open Sky’s affiliated accreditations.

To ensure we both operate with transparency as well as prioritize the mental, emotional, and physical safety of youth in our care, Open Sky:

  • is the only wilderness therapy program licensed by health and human service agencies in two states.
  • has twice-yearly in-person audits with each state licensing agency, as well as random unannounced licensing visits.
  • is the first wilderness therapy program to receive accreditation through the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), an international professional membership organization incorporated in 1977, and the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH), founded in 1996.
  • conducts background checks on all our employees.
  • requires ongoing professional risk-management training for all field and operations staff and provides 24-hour on-call staff for any emergent needs.
  • is owned by wilderness therapy professionals who are very involved in the day-to-day operations of our program. They consistently visit the field to work with staff and speak with students.

To learn more about licensing and accreditation at Open Sky, click here.

Open Sky has a robust community of alumni who are willing to connect with prospective families and share more about their own time in our program. They understand the challenge of seeking treatment for a loved one, can speak to the details of the Open Sky experience, and are available to offer information, insight, and advice for navigating this journey.

If you would like to connect with Open Sky alumni students or families, please contact our admissions team at admissions@openskywilderness.com. In the meantime, we encourage prospective families to consult the numerous testimonials submitted by former students and families, accessible here.  We also encourage you to speak to mental health professionals, of which there are thousands around the country, who have direct experience working with our program.

As you encounter information about therapeutic programs in general or Open Sky specifically, we encourage you to keep these questions in mind:

Does the information come from a credible source? A common tactic used by critics of wilderness therapy is to bombard programs with negative online reviews, regardless of whether the reviewer has direct experience with the program. Feedback that does not provide specific details and uses vague language such as “programs like these” may not be from credible sources, such as alumni who have direct experience in the program.

Does the source invite open dialogue? Many online forums that target residential treatment have strict and biased rules around engagement. These rules include rejecting input and removing contributions from people who positively portray residential programs.

If you are considering treatment at Open Sky and feel any uncertainty, we encourage you to ask us any questions you may have. We value transparency, openness, and direct communication.

About Open Sky: Who We Are and What We Do

At Open Sky, we ask our students and families to stay open to growth and change, and it’s important that we as a company do so as well. Open Sky consistently evaluates best practices within wilderness therapy and updates our program components and interventions when appropriate.  

Open Sky strives to foster a culture of feedback that permeates our entire organization. Upon graduation, all students and families complete program evaluations, which ask for both positive and constructive feedback. While research indicates the effectiveness of wilderness therapy treatment, we recognize that we cannot affect outcomes for 100% of the students we work with. Feedback helps us identify our strengths and areas of growth as well as empowers us to provide an experience of hope and healing for as many people as possible. 

It is important to Open Sky that thorough, accurate information about our program is readily available to all who wish to learn more. Our website, social media channels, and blog are filled with information that details our clinical approach, program objectives, field practices, risk management standards, and more. We invite you to explore the information and links below to learn more about who we are and what we do.

Welcoming Students to Open Sky

It is of the utmost importance to Open Sky that families feel confident in the path they have embarked upon with their child. We work closely with both students and families on arrival day and beyond to help them feel secure and supported on their journeys of healing and discovery.

Culture of Respect

At Open Sky, our work is to create space where people can identify, honor, and celebrate their unique strengths, challenges, gifts, and talents. As an organization and as individuals, we are committed to fostering a respectful, welcoming, and equitable environment for people of all backgrounds.

Core Values

It is important to Open Sky that what we offer as an organization is genuinely believed and supported by the people who work here. Our core values—courage, community, and excellence—guide us in this work.

Risk Management

Creating a safe environment for our students is our greatest priority, and we maintain the highest standards of risk-management and safety.

Clinical Expertise and Treatment Planning

Trained in the most current and research-proven methods, our clinical team specialize in the treatment of early adolescents, adolescents, young adults, and families. Students and families work closely with our clinical therapists to develop a treatment plan specific to their needs, laying the foundation for effective therapy and lasting success.

Base Camp Infrastructure

Each team’s base camp is furnished with structures to keep students warm, dry, and comfortable as they engage in therapeutic work. These structures include a large tipi, a canvas wall tent with a wood-burning stove, a shower stall with warm water, and a covered camp structure for gathering, preparing food, and eating meals together.

Student Rights

Open Sky respects the rights of young people and treats students with dignity and care. Upon arrival at Open Sky, each student is issued a Students Bill of Rights. This document makes sure students are aware of the team of field, clinical, and medical staff available to support them and outlines the rights they have while in our program, including the right to:

  • be treated with respect and care regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other diverse background or identity;
  • request changes to their treatment plan;
  • a reasonable degree of privacy;
  • freedom of thought and religion;
  • confidential communication with family members via written letters.

Students are also made aware of the formal process for reporting any complaints or grievances they have, including the proper channels to follow and who they may consult.

Research-Proven Results

Wilderness therapy is highly effective. Our ongoing empirical research shows that Open Sky students and families maintain interpersonal, mental health, and behavioral gains long after graduating.

Family Involvement

Families are thoughtfully included in their child’s journey at Open Sky and engage with intentional forms of communication with both their therapist and child. Through opportunities such as the Family Quest intensive—which can occur during or at the end of a student’s stay—and graduation weekend, family members can come to the field to interact with their loved one in treatment and witness the Open Sky experience for themselves.