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Wilderness Therapy Works: Addressing Common Misconceptions about Wilderness

Recently, there have been a growing number of misconceptions about the merits and practices of wilderness therapy. Our founder, Dan McDougal, along with many others, has helped to guide industry best practices towards a higher modicum of physical and emotional care for students and their families. While we purposefully do not reply to individual negative content that is distributed about our program or industry, we believe it's important to address broad inaccuracies out of respect for our team who dedicates themselves to helping others and to the students and families who have placed their trust in our hands.

Blue Ridge was founded from a belief that wilderness therapy must be an environment of encouragement, empathy, compassion, positive role-modeling and guidance. The bedrock of our program is our commitment to teaching adolescents and young adults core skills they need in order to live in alignment with their personal values. We are not a bootcamp, nor a behavioral modification facility. We are a therapeutic treatment program who utilizes the wilderness as a conduit for reflection and education.

We are one of the first wilderness therapy programs to identify that nutrition and full-body physical and mental wellness are integral to students’ treatment journey and ultimate success. While it may not be the most traditional backpacking diet, we are committed to providing students with fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, whole-grains and nuts for each day they are with us. Students' dietary needs are met by our Health and Wellness Coordinator, Nicole Borth, who is also a licensed nutritionist and 200 RYT yoga instructor. The Health and Wellness Coordinator also ensures that each student's dietary restrictions and allergies are always accommodated.

To ensure student comfort and safety, we are one of the first programs to focus on implementing high-quality program infrastructure. This includes backpacking gear, warm and dry attire, camp tools, etc. When these items are in great condition and well organized, and when our students have excellent nutrition, they can dedicate their energy to their therapeutic work and present experiences.

Our program is often one step of an ongoing effort to assess and treat various behavioral issues, mental illnesses or other challenges. Sometimes our students go home after being in our program, and sometimes they continue on with appropriate treatment as necessary. As such, there are numerous opportunities for both progress and setbacks on the path to reaching personal goals. Setbacks do not diminish our confidence and understanding of the positive impact of our programs, nor the belief we hold that each individual is worthy of compassion.

Negative media coverage and internet-based opposition groups tend to use all-encompassing language when referring to adolescent behavioral healthcare and wilderness therapy programs (or, more broadly, the “Troubled Teen Industry”). Such general characterizations can’t be accurate across an entire band of organizations within an industry. We caution audiences to be skeptical and discerning when such wide-ranging accusations are being made.

Additionally, language used in negative media coverage and by opposition groups tends to be highly emotive, exaggerated, and sometimes, inaccurate or baseless. We advise the public to take note of such reporting styles, the presence or lack of objective journalism, and the sources from which information is being shared. We ask individuals to consider that there could be context or dynamics of situations that might not be fully illustrated.

In response to some misinformation and accusations we've encountered regarding regulatory practices and licensing, we would like to mention the research and accreditation processes conducted by our industry. We are members of the National Association for Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) and the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH Council). The research conducted and sponsored by these organizations is credible and thorough.

The OBH Council’s research cooperative, the OBH Center, carries out comprehensive research and provides credible, objective information to the industry. The information developed by the research cooperative is subjected to rigorous evaluation by the OBH Center’s Technical Review Committee and the External Peer Review Committee in order to insure its accuracy and objectivity before publication in journals and other publications.

NATSAP recognizes the need and responsibility to conduct appropriate research on its professional practices. This is why they have undertaken a major initiative to encourage all members to demonstrate that they examine their practice in a meaningful way. Programs that demonstrate this commitment are invited to apply, and receive upon examination by the NATSAP Research Committee, the status of a NATSAP Research Designated Program (RDP). Blue Ridge has met those requirements and has secured an RDP certification.

The Association of Experiential Education (AAE) partners with the OBHC to conduct industry licensing. The OBH Council believed that it was essential to have AEE own and manage this accreditation independent from the Council. This ensures a level of separation and accountability that is essential to the integrity of accreditation.

To learn more about our regulatory structure and processes, visit our Licensing and Accreditation page.

We stand by the work we do, our staff, and the families who trust us to help them learn to thrive. We share these thoughts to broadly address accusations against our industry— and rather than rely solely on our perspective, we recommend you read our Testimonials page to see what former students and their families have offered to share. It takes an amazing amount of courage to share these stories and we are continuously humbled by the strengths of the families and individuals we serve.

Finally, we recommend you read Blue Ridge/ Emerald Arrow alumni parent Dawn McCord’s book, "Chasing Carson: A Family's Journey through Adolescence, Addiction and Recovery” (https://adolescentaddictionandrecovery.com/) or listen to her interview on Dr. Will White’s podcast, Stories from the Field: Demystifying Wilderness Therapy. Dawn's insights and experiences can help so many families, and we applaud her authenticity.