I Was a Wilderness Therapy Success Story. Then My PTSD Surfaced.

Yves here. I’ve always been leery of wilderness therapy because even when younger I would have quickly sprained an ankle and been in serious trouble. But more generally, it seems like a cult-like process to break someone’s will (here particularly in connection with the “bonding” process afterward). This is completely different from outdoor rituals of passage or vision quests, where the participant is psychologically prepared and critically, has not been compelled.

By Katherine Gibbons, a 21 year-old psychology student advocating for reform of the wilderness therapy industry. Originally published at Undark

The nightmares and flashbacks did not start until two years after I left Evoke Cascades. I was just 17 when I was taken there against my will. Located in a secluded desert near Bend, Oregon, Evoke Cascades was part of the lucrative for-profit industry of wilderness therapy programs for adolescents. Like similar programs, it operated on the premise that kids who are struggling with self-medicating or self-destructive behaviors, as I was, are best treated by removing them from familiar environments — and from civilization altogether.

The living conditions were treacherous; the physical demands were harsh. I often had to endure frigid and freezing temperatures with only a thin tarp as my shelter. For the 13 weeks I was there, I had no access to the outside world, except through weekly letters from my parents. I felt abandoned, unwanted, and unloved, despite understanding that my parents had sent me there to try to help me. Like many other adolescents who get placed in these programs, I went straight from wilderness therapy — filthy and exhausted — into seven months of therapeutic boarding school, further extending my isolation from friends and family.

For a time, I repressed these memories. I returned home to the Chicago suburbs, finished my senior year in high school, and earned admission to my dream university, a highly regarded Catholic school. In a 2020 story in Undark magazine, I attested that wilderness therapy had helped me overcome my self-medicating coping mechanisms and renew my focus on myself and academics.

Then, in my freshman year of college, the flashbacks started. Deep rooted anxieties surfaced. In time, I came to realize that the wilderness therapy I had credited with reversing my downward spiral had, in actuality, traumatized me.

I’m not alone. Dozens of wilderness therapy programs currently operate in the U.S. Collectively, according to the American Bar Association, the troubled teen industry — including therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, boot camps, and correctional facilities — treats between 120,000 and 200,000 adolescents each year, some 50,000 of whom were sent privately by their parents. There is little scientific evidence that wilderness therapy is effective, and many such programs have faced lawsuits alleging abuse, improper treatment of adolescents, and wrongful death. Many of them have permanently closed. Yet, wilderness therapy remains a thriving industry and parents frequently pay $16,000 or more per month in fees.

Many of the young people who graduate from these programs, however, report lasting trauma. In recent stories by The Guardian, USA Today, and other outlets, survivors of wilderness therapy have described experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, that were triggered by their experiences.

My own symptoms surfaced in the form of unwanted memories of my abrupt transportation to Evoke Cascades — of waking up in a tiny motel room with two strangers and fearing I’d been kidnapped into a human trafficking scheme. Although I knew it was irrational, I felt during those flashbacks as if it could happen to me again. I relived the sense of abandonment I felt when I was there.

These anxieties grew worse each year around the anniversary of my exile to wilderness therapy. I began self-medicating to cope.

The Undark article I appeared in, and which I feel portrayed me in an unflattering light, did not help matters. Every time I thought of it, heard of it, or read about it, I felt traumatized anew.

Eventually, I realized that my anxieties weren’t going away, and that I couldn’t manage them on my own. I withdrew from school to attend a trauma center, where medical professionals clinically diagnosed me with PTSD, which they determined was rooted in my experience at Evoke Cascades. Using brain mapping, they detected signatures of trauma in my occipital and temporal lobes. Now, I have clinical and scientific evidence that wilderness therapy traumatized me.

But the trauma center also equipped me with tools to help me manage my PTSD. I have used neurofeedback therapy to learn to better control my brain functions, and Accelerated Resolution Therapy has helped me regulate my responses to emotional triggers. I also exercise more — the endorphins help to improve my mood, thoughts, and feelings. Through trauma-informed therapy, I’ve healed, gained friendships and self-insight, and acquired a sense of self-love that has allowed me to return to school and succeed.

About two years after I left Evoke Cascades, the program closed and was folded into another Evoke branch. But, almost certainly, it continues to exact a mental health toll on many of the young people who were sent there, traumatized, and kept there against their will. I am lucky: I found resources that made me feel both physically and mentally well. Others may not be as fortunate.

And so I stand with the public figures, non-profit organizations, and survivors who have called to reform the “troubled teen” industry and to investigate the allegations of abuse and neglect that swirl around it. Yes, wilderness therapy might have helped me temporarily shed certain self-destructive behaviors. However, it was not worth the lasting trauma.

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  1. hendricks

    I went to one of these camps, and then a subsequent “therapeutic boarding school,” and then a high school level military academy.

    Not only are the treatments shoddy, at best, but the cottage industry of the whole thing is vile.
    These programs are extremely expensive, and therefore only for a certain class of family with access to cash or credit. Last I checked, a wilderness program is about $20,000 for 10 weeks in the desert. A therapeutic school starts at about $80,000 for a year.
    Of course these “schools” are in deep with private equity. I think the largest network is the Aspen Corp, or at least it was when I was going through these programs.
    They very systematically have a hard fear mongering sales pitch to traumatized families, that their child is about to go off the rails, and how much are they willing to pay to keep their child away from that destiny of prison or death. 20 years ago, they were regular fodder for Oprah and Dr Phil specials.
    While the conservative “family oriented” states of middle America are most attractive to the wilderness programs for being rural, Utah is especially attractive because of the limited about of liability laws and insurance requirements for these programs. It’s harder to prosecute any abuse. Some of these programs have explicit connections to cults like Synanon, or plain ole christian morality narratives.

    I don’t completely regret the programs I went through, because it was great to get away from my fundamentalist baptist parents. I didn’t experience any particular abuse or neglect and consider my lucky. It did thrust a lot of “personal growth” on me very quickly, and gave me a lot of new opportunities and insights, that’d I’d never get if I did stick in my family’s orbit. But it also makes relating to people who’ve never experienced this, and take certain things for granted, very difficult.

    1. UserFriendlyyy

      Truly awful, I had a friend in High School sent off to one of these places. When he came back it was awful .And of course he was not allowed to talk to any of his old friends….
      I always felt that those places were essentially the same as the pray away the gay camps they sent kids to.

  2. hemeantwell

    I’ve known a few people who went through outdoor-based group therapies decades ago. To a person they had, after talking with friends at the time, come to think of it as a camping experience, challenging but bearable. The writer’s account sounds woefully different, and I’m reminded of descriptions of the coercive therapies imposed on kids who think they may be transsexual.

    Gotta wonder, though, about her subsequent treatment. One might think that after the experience she was left with an assortment of emotions, among them being very pissed off with her family. My hunch would be that the flashbacks, which sound like they immerse her in the “therapy” experience itself, must also involve that anger and feelings of betrayal. Those, in turn, may set off panicky feelings that are often associated with fear of abandonment. I have not idea what “brain mapping” involves, but it’s a tell that she refers to the results as a neurophysiological proof that something bad happened, a proof that might help her build a case against people who refuse to listen to her account of suffering. All of those social psychological dynamics vanish in the (re)mapping process.

    It’s worth bringing up again Simmel’s understanding of “war neuroses” suffered by WWI veterans. Contrary to those who emphasized the sheer, ego-overwhelming horror of the trenches, his work with vets led him to believe that their suffering was significantly about the shock and dismay of their leaders having forced them into the horror. Just who are they returning to when they return to civilian life? A scene from Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind, where soldiers trying to relax between battles imagine an alternative war in which political leaders of opposing countries are put in a field and forced to beat each other’s brains out in a Last Man Standing substitute for world war. Ideas of that sort might be part of the trauma the young woman suffers from. They start to surface on anniversaries and she can’t bear it.

    1. hemeantwell

      I’d add that some years ago I participated in gestalt therapy groups that, whatever their numerous shortcomings, did have some handle on the importance of rage expression. While it was hardly a new thing for me, I was astonished at how useful it was for some people to whack away with a tennis racket at a pillow representing some past bad object, screaming obscenities, Much fun has been made of those routines, but they really benefited from not just the “release of aggression” but, very differently, learning that they could handle it and, indeed, find some enjoyment in it instead of fearing it. They would think they were supposed to get rid of the aggression, sorta like a fecal matter, instead of seeing it as legit. I’d guess that nowadays at least some of those people could get trapped into the “trauma survivor” role, which can easily become passivized if aggression isn’t worked with.

  3. digi_owl

    As a foreigner i have always been puzzled by the seemingly persistent threat of dad sending their son off to some military academy if they do not behave.

    This seems like more of the same, but with the overt military bits filed off.

    Yet more secularized legacy of Calvinism/puritanism?

  4. Wukchumni

    I’ve coerced many a city dweller into the wilderness, but my cajoling is tempered by making sure they are sore, but not sore @ yours truly. I can easily gauge their ‘outer limits’ if you will, and the whole object is for the experience to be enjoyable-not a death march.

    For us the chemistry of companionship plays a huge role, as you don’t want people there that don’t want to be there, and these wilderness therapy groups are the antithesis of our experience.

  5. Joe Well

    >>it also makes relating to people who’ve never experienced this, and take certain things for granted, very difficult.

    Have you ever volunteered with young refugees? Your experience sounds a lot like theirs, getting separated from family and having to grow up too quickly.

    1. Joe Well

      Sorry, I made this comment on my phone in reply to hendricks and somehow it didn’t thread and won’t let me erase or edit it.

  6. gdmofo

    The “counselors” (all employees at these things are considered counselors) they have at these things are a joke. It’s just a bunch of under trained (or untrained) over aggressive idiots that think yelling makes them right.

    Good thing theres tons of oversite on these organsitions, sending a troubled teen off to the wilderness where they could easily be abused and nobody would believe them would be a horrible idea, right? Right?

  7. square coats

    One of my good friends was sent to one of these when he was in high school. It was incredibly traumatizing and two decades or so later he’s still trying to figure out how to deal with it. The thing is that it’s basically intentionally traumatizing, like the way they come to take kids away in the middle of the night, they try to scare the kids badly. Call me naive, but I would think if you’re taking a kid against their will to a program that’s supposed to help them, you’d try to reassure them and explain what’s going to happen and that they’ll be safe, but these programs do the exact opposite pretty much.

    My friend also went into a “therapeutic” boarding school after the wilderness program and only got out a couple years later when he finally got visitation privileges allowing his parents to come see him and he stole enough money from his mom’s purse to get a bus ticket back home.

    One interesting thing I came across about these programs in an academic paper published awhile ago by now was the author found that adopted kids were super over represented in the programs compared to the general u.s. population. I don’t remember the exact statistic but it was something kind of mind boggling.

    For anyone who might be interested, TrueAnon did a series of episodes about these programs, their ties to Synanon, etc. Brace was sent to one when he was a kid.

  8. lyman alpha blob

    I went to a Xtian summer camp as a kid that I really hated, but to claim PTSD from a bad camping trip seems a stretch. Not all traumas are created equal. There was a video posted here in links the other day of Ukrainian war casualties that was so horrific that I could only get through 30 seconds of it, and I’d imagine those victims and the people who came across them will suffer far greater than the author of this piece did from a few weeks in the woods as a teenager.

    Wilderness therapy does sound like just another money making grift based on the article and comments above, however the author comes across as someone who might just be a little overprivileged and enjoys having their problems diagnosed a bit too much. Looking back, I didn’t know much when I was 21 and I have to wonder if this might be the 2nd Undark article she appears in that she later regrets.

    1. S.

      People can induce trauma in themselves, and it seems like the author may have done that here after some unflattering coverage in the media made her feel the need to reinterpret her experience to better suit her present needs as an undergrad studying psychology.

  9. Adams

    As one of “those” parents, I believe you are painting with too broad a brush. Yes, there have been, and are, well-documented scams, abuse pretending to be therapy, tragedies, and outright fraud. (See film “Holes,” based on the novel.) Yes, caveat emptor, self-education and ongoing involvement are critical when dealing with the “troubled teen” industry. But our experience was, for the most part, very positive. My daughter benefited significantly from her three months in a wilderness program. Her primary therapist was skilled, experienced and very competent. (Which is not to say she always agreed with me.) Group process was scheduled and structured, but also part of the day-to-day experience. Line staff (out in the woods) were well trained, alert and watchful, and engaged, although young and inexperienced for the most part. Professional staff engagement and feedback with me, the parent, was constant but structured. Outcome was positive; my and my daughter’s goals were met.

    That is not to say she was “cured.” For parents and child the struggle continues. (See “Hi Ren,” the video). But it was a very positive step in the journey. N.B.: Any program that, in essence, tells you to butt-out and turn you child over to the “professionals” is probably a non-starter.

    Note: after weeks of intensive research and contacts with many long-term, in-patient adolescent treatment programs (ATP) nation-wide, I did not follow the wilderness program’s recommendation that she continue treatment in one of these programs. She came home.

  10. playon

    Very interesting take on this subject. I was recently recommending some kind of youth getaway program to a friend whose teenage kid is going through some tough times (exacerbated by the pandemic), but after reading this I have a lot of doubts. I have sent this piece to him.

    I never experienced this particular circumstance, but I was in a juvenile detention system for almost a full year when I was 15, which is many ways similar — isolated from friends and family, strict discipline, hard work etc. Luckily for me my state had a somewhat enlightened juvenile correctional system compared to most other places, but the experience was still traumatic.

    Also – weren’t passion/vision quests compulsory in many cultures?

    1. jrkrideau

      I don’t see a problem with “some kind of youth getaway program”. It could well be a good idea, the issue is the type of program. I think what you don’t want is the equivent of a US Marines’ boot camp run by amateurs or some kind of mad religious nutbars.

      I had not heard of wilderness therapy before and thought, sounds good. A two week canoeing trip through one of the national parks in Northern Canada with some good guides/therapists could well be a handy reset that could facilitate real therapy.

      This assumed sleeping bags not tarps.

    2. Grebo

      Quite extreme ‘welcome to adulthood’ ordeals seem to be common in tribal societies. A good idea on the whole, I think, taken a bit too far.

      I suggest these troubled rich kids should be given a low dose of psilocybin and taken to their local homeless encampment to talk to the denizens. Just for a few hours, and well chaperoned of course.

  11. Sue in SoCal

    Many, many years ago, I considered this wilderness route for one of my kids and decided against it. It sounded brutal, despite, at least at that time long ago, the credentials of the staff were very high. There was no “kidnapping” involved, but I felt this would have created a total resentful break. Now that these programs are run for profit (likely as nonprofits), I can only imagine what these are like – expensive high margin boot camps.

    Not to trivialize the subject, I understand the Duke of Edinburgh started a youth “character building” program 65 years ago. I know nothing personally of it; it was satirized in a really silly hip hop horror film ending in the kids’ excoriation of the elites. I don’t know about dumping kids in the Highlands with tarps and a map (with the likes of Eddie Izzard shooting at them), but the one kid’s final monologue was worth it.


  12. Billy

    Every “program” particularly those programs that prey on folks going through what can be a very tough, tough time of their lives can have excesses.

    That said the wilderness experience can be a valuable reset from everyday routines. And yes, a wilderness experience can include minimal shelter and a lack of creature comforts (including lack of running water). However a wilderness experience can also be an opportunity to learn patience, perseverance, and persistence.

    Not to mention an opportunity to see some exquisite landscapes – large and small that can truly lift the heart, .

    Some folks believe that the land provides.

  13. give-me-a-break

    This article and many of the comments just reaffirm the notion of national decline. I am astounded by the percentage of unproductive kids our society is producing. I remember boot camp back in the day when the DI’s were still permissioned to place their hands on your to adjust your posture. That was 8 or 12 weeks of hardship that most people look back on with a certain fondness.

    It’s no wonder so many people are opting not to have kids. Why expose yourself to the risk that they are going to be your dependent until you are dead while the state takes away all notions of parental authority over them. It’s kind of the same deal of why would any young man consider getting married…seems like huge risks stacked against you.

    If I were a young man today, I think I would learn to speak Russian and go visit for 6 months to see what it was really like with the idea of settling down to live there.

    1. Rod

      imo, right on comment in general.
      This struck a cord: I am astounded by the percentage of unproductive kids our society is producing.
      It surely is a multi-faceted result of inputs and external factors–I have no answers for but do see.

      Between my 11th and 18th years of life i was raised in extreme Appalachian Poverty. I was not alone in my Township or School District.
      No Electricity during that time and that does have big ripple effects. Others also.
      My Mom worked every day, and I worked every chance around being in school.
      But the rent had to be paid.
      And was.

  14. CarlH

    I was sent away as a teenager to a small “Christian counseling” group in Sacramento. It was run by an ex biker who ruled over my life with an iron fist. It was crazy, with people at all hours of the day or night speaking in tongues, crying and praying, and the like. I was “kidnapped”, but for me it was during daytime (I was watching Perry Mason at the time). It was basically a cult centering on the ex biker. I was finally brought back home when the whole thing blew up because the leader was sleeping with all the women of the group. Each of the women thought that she was his only lover. The whole thing prayed on good people who were at their lowest point and looking for anything that would help. I was not physically or sexually abused, but I have very strong feelings about this episode of my life and what I saw and experienced. To this day I do not trust the overtly religious or religion in general. I only bring this up to give an idea of what these children might be going through and how it might affect them later, though I know their situation is different from mine.

  15. Billy

    ” The whole thing prayed on good people who were at their lowest point and looking for anything that would help”

    Way too common !!!!

  16. Phichibe

    When Outward Bound became a thing in the late 80s, not least in Silicon Valley companies where I spent my working years, all I could think of was something S.J. Perelman wrote from a piece published in the New Yorker under the title “I Hate Spanish Moss”. I transcribed the relevant section and for the amusement of the NC-ariat,here it is. PS: Perelman was and remains my favorite essayist and short form writer. He co-wrote several of the pivotal Marx Brothers movies in the early 30s, and it’s almost impossible to read him without hearing Groucho’s learing New York accent. Summer camp sadism about sums it up. Cheers.

    Everyone was a trifle edgy, therefore, when one of the trucks drew alongside the next morning and a phony wrangler out of a TV western boisterously herded us inside. The vehicle, it developed, was a so-called swamp buggy, a furniture van with low-pressure tires adapted for picnicking in marshlands.
    “I loathe marshlands,” my wife snapped as we jolted along over an interminable highway. “I loathe picnicks, too, for that matter. This is typical summer-camp sadism. You wait – before the day is over, they’ll chop down some kind of bush and make us eat it.”

    Stunted as is her intelligence, the woman has a prophetic gift. No sooner had we reached our goal, a federal game reserve, than our guide felled a cabbage palm, extracted the pith and boiled it up with bacon and onions to the consistency of warm linoleum paste. Armed with platefuls of the goodge and charred hamburgers, we all stood about gazing apathetically at the hundreds of gnarled roots protruding from the savanna. These cypress knees, it was explained, are much prized for their artistic beauty; given three coats of orange shellac, they make lovely tie racks and bases for lamps, or alternatively, can be placed on coffee tables as conversation pieces.

    “Those things wouldn’t start a conversation between anybody but urologists.” I observed to the guide. Most of them look like bladders and kidneys. I wouldn’t give them houseroom.”

    “Nobody’s asked you for houseroom. All we want out of you, brother, is a big, fat silence. Now, friends, lemme show you how us swamp denizens whittle a turkey call, and then I’ll play some country hoe-downs on my li’l ole gee-tah.”

  17. Mangelwurtzel

    As a result of some indiscretions, I was shunted into a wilderness trip “for troubled youth” that changed my life, and much for the better. Circa 1987, run by a local youth counselor, we paddled Lake Temagami in Ontario on limited rations, bracing water temps, and all you can eat wild blueberries. I’m sure this is a world away from corporatized programs, but I guess my point is that it can be difficult AND healing and effective, if run in the right way (i.e. not involuntary). I even went back for a second helping the next year, paddling 300 miles to the James Bay. When I got back home, a hot shower was a religious experience.

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