Is Wilderness Therapy the Right Therapeutic Program for Your Young Adult Daughter?

At Skyterra Embrace, we often hear from parents who are seeking support for their struggling young adult daughter. Parents who contact our program typically have extreme concern for their young adult daughter and seek expert help for a wide range of difficulties and levels of care. 

These challenges are commonly social, emotional, and/or behavioral difficulties that hinder young adult women from launching into a healthy and productive life. As parents work to determine the best program for their young adult daughter, one thing is certain: the program design must fit their daughter’s individual needs.

If you are a parent seeking a program to help your young adult daughter launch into adulthood, you may start the journey by working with mental health professionals to determine the level of care that is most appropriate. Another opportunity would be to work with an educational consultant who will help you find the best program for your daughter. 

If you’re looking for resources for your young adult daughter, this expert guide provides information about the programs available for various levels of care and outlines the similarities and differences between wilderness therapy and the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra Embrace.

Therapeutic Levels of Care for Young Adults

High Acuity

For young adult women facing extreme difficulties, psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities provide the highest amount of care and safety. Examples of challenges requiring this level of care include psychosis, severe eating disorders, and homicidal and/or suicidal ideation.

Other young adults may require a detoxification facility or sober living program that focuses on addiction recovery and substance abuse.

Medium Acuity

Wilderness therapy is one type of intervention for young adults requiring a moderate level of care and safety. Students typically spend 12 to 14 weeks in wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy is a mental health treatment strategy, combining therapy with challenging experiences in an outdoor wilderness environment. Wilderness programs are not designed for students with high acuity and may not be appropriate for those with low acuity.

Sometimes called outdoor behavioral healthcare, wilderness therapy provides intervention and treatment of problem behaviors.

Varying Acuity

Most therapeutic programs, regardless of care level, utilize admission applications to determine suitability. Since every student and situation is unique, admission is often determined on a case-by-case basis.

Below are options suitable for varying levels of acuity:

  • Residential treatment programs offer a varying level of care to young adults as they reside at the treatment center from three months to 12 months. Most residential treatment programs specialize in mental health issues (rather than substance abuse or addiction), providing stabilization, assessment, diagnostics and treatment for young adults struggling with all severities of psychological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Other residential treatment programs serve as a next step for students after completing wilderness therapy and provide continuing therapeutic care as students transition to their next phase of life.
  • Transitional living programs also help young adults with a variety of acuity levels. These programs usually work with young adults after they have completed wilderness therapy and/or a stay in a residential treatment program. Transitional living programs specialize in assisting young adults as they move from a restrictive environment to an independent environment. Students often begin by living in a staffed home then move into an apartment with other students. Throughout the program, staff assists students with their next phase of life, including college preparation, academic advising, job support, and independent living. Young adults are typically in transitional living programs for six to 12 months.
  • Skyterra Embrace is a unique therapeutic wellness program for young women ages 18 to 29 with medium to low acuity. Some students attend Embrace after completing wilderness therapy as a bridge to returning home and as an opportunity to learn life skills like cooking, shopping and meal planning.
    • Embrace is a residential program and assists students as they learn to manage stress, cultivate resilience, and prepare to take on all of life’s responsibilities.
    • Embrace provides a unique model called therapeutic wellness, which combines therapeutic support and structure with five pillars of wellness. This ensures young adult women leave the program with a healthy mind, body and spirit.
    • Students choose to attend and participate in the program, desiring growth and independence. Students spend at least two months at Embrace.

Similarities Between Embrace’s Therapeutic Wellness Program and Wilderness Therapy

Many commonalities exist between wilderness therapy and the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra Embrace. Three key commonalities include:

  • Benefits of nature and adventure: Nature provides an experience of retreat, mindfulness and reflection, and has many individualized therapeutic benefits. Adventure pushes self-perceived limitations, builds confidence, and shows students that exercise doesn’t have to be boring.
  • Group format: when young adults are with others and participating in the same experiences, change and growth happens in an organic way. Students build healthy relationships and interpersonal skills.
  • Therapeutic component: progressive individual therapy sessions and group therapy help identify each participant’s strengths and barriers, appropriate goal setting, and accountability in taking actions to meet goals. Structured schedules and coaching help support the therapeutic process of both wilderness therapy and therapeutic wellness programs.

Differences Between Embrace’s Therapeutic Wellness Program and Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy and the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra Embrace are also very different. Three key differences include skill development, program setting and program design.

Skill Development: Wilderness

The communication and regulation skills that are developed through experiences in wilderness and at Skyterra Embrace are applicable to home. The difference is that at Skyterra Embrace, students practice those skills in a real-world setting with the support of the Embrace team to help navigate difficulties.

Skill Development: Skyterra Embrace

Although many skills developed in the wilderness are transferable to life in society, the skills gained at Embrace are directly applicable to life and include long-lasting benefits in mind, body and spirit.

  • Embrace students nourish their minds by learning:
    • Self-care and stress management
    • Finances and budgeting
    • College and career preparation: applications, resumes, and interviews
    • Time management
    • Conflict resolution
    • Leadership
    • Technology use
  • Embrace helps students care for their bodies by teaching them:
    • Fitness and mobility
    • Culinary education: meal preparation and planning, grocery shopping, culinary skills 
    • Recreation and adventure
    • Health and hygiene
  • Embrace helps students strengthen their spirit by learning how to:
    • Handling critique and feedback
    • Goal-setting
    • Positive body image
    • Boundaries

Program Setting: Wilderness

Wilderness therapy takes place fully outdoors. Students live a remote, small-group lifestyle and are either nomadic or have a base camp. A radical change of environment is part of the therapeutic process. Wilderness therapy programs involve the complete removal from everyday life, comforts of home, triggers, and unhealthy coping mechanisms like peers, technology and substance abuse.

Program Setting: Skyterra Embrace

Conversely, the therapeutic wellness program at Embrace takes place on a 12-acre mountain-top campus in a former bed and breakfast, separated from social pressures and distractions. The home-like environment includes a kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, community spaces, a gym, a sun deck, and balconies with expansive mountain views. Embrace participants participate in many nature-based off-campus activities including hiking, swimming and paddleboarding, as well as service activities, grocery shopping education, community dinner outings, and excursions to local farmer’s markets and other events.

Program Design and Intentions: Wilderness Versus Skyterra Embrace

Wilderness therapy participants must learn to survive in unfamiliar, remote environments. Students regularly face challenging experiences and hardship that are intended to teach personal growth and grit. Embrace is a welcoming and caring environment that requires students to participate in an active process of transformation to live healthy and valued lives.

Wilderness programs require a high level of physical exertion. Embrace welcomes all fitness levels and requires that students are able to walk around on their own and be able to climb a few stairs. Most wilderness therapy programs have young adults in co-ed groups. The therapeutic wellness program at Embrace is designed for young women ages 18 to 29. Wilderness therapy is designed to help facilitate outdoor mastery and primitive life skills such as making fires. Embrace is designed to help young women build awareness, confidence, self-worth, clarity, and deeper connections with self and others.

How to Find the Program That’s Right for Your Young Adult Daughter

Every student and situation is unique. Below are a few key guidelines to keep in mind while searching for a program.

Wilderness Therapy: Appropriate Students

As previously mentioned, wilderness therapy is designed to help students that need a medium level of care and safety. Most wilderness therapy programs are not designed to help young adults experiencing psychosis or schizophrenia, students with a history of violence or sexual assault, students with physical limitations such as a reliance on a wheelchair or crutches, and students with a problem requiring intensive medical care including diabetes and severe eating disorders. Students who attend wilderness therapy programs often have established patterns of damaging behavior towards themselves and/or with other people. Many of the students have difficulty rationalizing, do not have healthy coping mechanisms, and do not understand consequences. Young adults in wilderness therapy programs live in peer groups so that they have many opportunities to practice healthy relationships.

Skyterra Embrace: Appropriate Students

Skyterra Embrace’s therapeutic wellness program is best for young adults who are able to address their behaviors in a group environment. Appropriate students have a fairly solid baseline of mental and emotional stability. Young adults who are unable to keep themselves or others safe are typically better served by a wilderness therapy program or a higher level of care.

Embrace is typically able to help students who are seeking help with:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Family-related stress management
  • Recovery from a traumatic past, grief/loss, illness, or life change
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Overwhelmed by life
  • Lack direction, purpose, vision, and/or identity
  • Uncertain about college, career, and/or future
  • Lack of life skills necessary to live independently
  • Technology addiction
  • Disordered eating behaviors
  • Difficulty transitioning to adulthood
  • Adjustment issues
  • Lack of confidence and self-esteem issues
  • Defiance
  • Entitlement
  • Anger management
  • Lack of social skills
  • Relationship issues
  • Negative life patterns
  • Need a reset.

The Importance of Family Involvement

No matter the program, young adults entering a program need family support. 

The Parent Program at Skyterra Embrace takes place at Skyterra Wellness Retreat. Parents are strongly encouraged to attend the program for an individual reset and focus on family dynamics. The program consists of educational talks, discussion groups and family therapy.

Throughout the program, Embrace provides parents with updates on the progress of their young adult daughter in the program. Embrace experts also encourage students to provide updates to their parents each week while they journey through the program.

Parent updates from the Embrace team are based on an accountability document that outlines observations, notes and insight for the scheduled weekly activities and explains the progress, growth and engagement of the student in the program. This document is completed by both the student and their coach and is reviewed with the student at the end of each week. The parent update and report from the Embrace team does not replace communication and connection between parents and students during the week, but serves as a support and validation tool.

The foundation of the therapeutic wellness program at Embrace consists of five pillars, including self-care and stress management, fitness and mobility, culinary education and nutrition, recreation and adventure, and yoga and mindfulness. Parent updates focus on these areas and includes a therapeutic update as well as an independence update for the student legacy project and skill-based learning. 

Students speak to their parents weekly and are encouraged to focus on building accountability and credibility through their report card.

For more information about Skyterra Embrace, click here.

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Greg (MSW, LCSW, LCAS) is the Executive Director of Skyterra Embrace. Through his work with people living with trauma, attachment, substance abuse and addiction, and other mental health difficulties, Greg enjoys creating opportunities to encourage growth and development. For more information on Embrace, click here.