Communicating openly with their group, staff, therapist and family is often a profound new experience for students in wilderness therapy. Adolescents and young adults in outdoor treatment programs have unique opportunities to discover meaningful, authentic connections with others. The absence of materialism and superficial pleasures, combined with daily group objectives, encourages students to rely on each other, build trust, and confront difficult interpersonal dynamics– all without the distractions of a fabricated social hierarchy based on money, looks or popularity.
The pace of communication slows down in wilderness, yet the rate and depth of connection grows exponentially. Students and families learn that communication spans far beyond words- their body language, tone and timing are just as crucial. While students are guided through steps for communicating with integrity, authenticity and accountability, their families at home are learning the same tools.
These formative experiences offer adolescents and young adults the opportunity to contextualize their existence and develop empathy; to acknowledge that they are not alone and to receive the support in finding a sense of belonging, purpose, and community.
Over 50% of children own a smartphone in the United States, and adolescents and young adults are experiencing more anxiety, stress and depression than ever before. The Surgeon General's 2021 Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health states that "many researchers argue that digital technologies can expose children to bullying, contribute to obesity and eating disorders, trade off with sleep, encourage children to negatively compare themselves to others, and lead to depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Several studies have linked time spent on social media to mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression."
Many of us understand that time away from social media and other forms of instant gratification is crucial for our mental health, no matter what age we are. This is supported by multiple studies which show that time spent away from phones can result in positive mood, better sleep and lower anxiety. However, detoxing from 'screen-time' often proves more difficult than we imagine.
There are no screens in the wilderness camp setting, but there is so much more to pay attention to. Each moment is an opportunity to practice awareness and attune to our environment. In wilderness, the backdrop of nature allows each individual to listen to what they need and to consider what their values are. Students are called to fully show up for not just their peers, but also for themselves.
While students at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness may be ‘unplugged’, they are dialing in to what really matters: real-time communication, mindfulness and connection.