Wilderness therapy is attracting interest in the USA. We ask what is behind the approach, and whether it justifies the expense
This week, [April 22nd 2014] BBC drew attention to Eddie Curry, whose wilderness therapy sessions are operated in the desolate hills of Southern Utah, and are reported as lasting two months. The story focuses on one practitioner, so that generalizations come with an assumption alert:
The 45-year-old father knows how out-of-control teenagers tick – he used to be one. More than six feet tall aged 15, there was always plenty of opportunity for trouble. By 17, he was drinking a lot and getting in regular fistfights with his estranged father.
Parents at their wits end find Curry through internet searches, the wilderness programmes he works with or just by word of mouth. And they hire him for all sorts of reasons – drug and alcohol problems, violence and trouble with the police are among them. Often, more conventional treatment like therapy has failed or been refused.
“If you have me there, it’s gotten to the point where talking is done. There is no conversation happening or very little. And the little bit the parents are getting is usually yelling and screaming.”
Many families take out loans and re-mortgage houses to get their child help – a British parent will pay up to $6,000 (£3,500) to get Curry to come to the UK.
Almost every child says: “You’re not going to make me go. I’m not going.” Many children get hysterical, many cry. Some go berserk. To Curry, these kinds of reaction are only natural.
“I always put myself in these kids’ shoes. If I had some guy come into my room at five o’clock in the morning and break this news to me, I’d be annoyed.”
That’s not to say that he believes a word they say though.
“Most of the kids I pick up are just liars trying to get out of going. They’ll look you straight in the eye and lie. But I listen to their stories. I show them compassion. These are kids, not criminals. They might be doing some illegal stuff but they’re just kids that are screwing up, making bad decisions and hanging out with the wrong people. They’re not bad kids. I just wear them down. I’m not going to lose. I tell them that not going is not an option.”
Wilderness therapy has existed across the US for decades, and supporters say it results in better communication between the child and parents, increased self-confidence, and even better academic results.
“The key thing is that it disrupts negative patterns of behaviour and allows us to help them learn and establish some new healthy behaviours and ways of interacting with others,” says Steve Demille of RedCliff Ascent, one of the companies operating in Utah.
But Nicki Bush, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, warns that camps are not the silver bullet parents are hoping for and pay a “ludicrous” amount of money for it.
And though Curry only takes children who agree to go, he says, Prof Bush says many children find being escorted to camps a traumatic experience, and often perceive it as an abduction.
The BBC headline of child whisperers suggests that the approach is comparable to the work of horse whisperers. If that is the case, the method is based on tough love, and favouring the non-violent over violent methods of influence. As with horse whispering, it attracts publicity and cynicism particularly about claims for its effectiveness. In that respect, I was reminded of the story I came across [July 2013] of a therapy involving walking on hot coals.