Is Wilderness Therapy Right for Your Young Adult?


At Skyterra, we often hear from parents who are seeking support for their struggling young adult. Parents who contact our program typically have extreme concern for their young adult 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 adults from launching into a healthy and productive life. As parents work to determine the best program for their child, one thing is certain: the program design must fit their child’s individual needs.

If you are a parent seeking a program to help your young adult 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 son or daughter. 

If you’re looking for resources for your young adult, 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.

Therapeutic Levels of Care for Young Adults

High Acuity

For young adults 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. Guests 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 young adults 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 young adult 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 young adults after completing wilderness therapy and provide continuing therapeutic care as they 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. Young adults often begin by living in a staffed home then move into an apartment with other guests. Throughout the program, staff assists young adults 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 Young Adult is a unique therapeutic wellness program for young men and women ages 18 to 29 with medium to low acuity. Some young adults attend Skyterra after completing wilderness therapy as a bridge to returning home and as an opportunity to learn life skills like cooking, shopping and meal planning.
    • Skyterra is a residential program and assists guests as they learn to manage stress, cultivate resilience, and prepare to take on all of life’s responsibilities.
    • Skyterra provides a unique model called therapeutic wellness, which combines therapeutic support and structure with five pillars of wellness. This ensures young adults leave the program with a healthy mind, body and spirit.
    • Young adults choose to attend and participate in the program, desiring growth and independence. Our guests spend at least two months at Skyterra.

Similarities Between Skyterra’s Therapeutic Wellness Program and Wilderness Therapy

Many commonalities exist between wilderness therapy and the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra Young Adult. 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 young adults 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. young adults 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 Skyterra’s Therapeutic Wellness Program and Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy and the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra 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 are applicable to home. The difference is that at Skyterra, guests practice those skills in a real-world setting with the support of the Skyterra team to help navigate difficulties.

Skill Development: Skyterra

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

  • Skyterra guests 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
  • Skyterra helps young adults 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
  • Skyterra helps young adults 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. Young adults 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 Young Adult

Conversely, the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra 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. Skyterra guests 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 Young Adult

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

Wilderness programs require a high level of physical exertion. Skyterra welcomes all fitness levels and requires that young adults 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 Skyterra is designed for young adults ages 18 to 29. Wilderness therapy is designed to help facilitate outdoor mastery and primitive life skills such as making fires. Skyterra is designed to help young men and 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

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

Wilderness Therapy: Appropriate Candidates

As previously mentioned, wilderness therapy is designed to help young adults that need a medium level of care and safety. Most wilderness therapy programs are not designed to help young adults experiencing psychosis or schizophrenia, young adult with a history of violence or sexual assault, young adult with physical limitations such as a reliance on a wheelchair or crutches, and young adult with a problem requiring intensive medical care including diabetes and severe eating disorders. Young adult who attend wilderness therapy programs often have established patterns of damaging behavior towards themselves and/or with other people. Many of the young adult 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 Young Adult: Appropriate Candidates

Skyterra Young Adult’s therapeutic wellness program is best for young adults who are able to address their behaviors in a group environment. Appropriate young adults 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.

Skyterra is typically able to help young adults 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 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, Skyterra provides parents with updates on the progress of their young adult in the program. Skyterra experts also encourage guests to provide updates to their parents each week while they journey through the program.

Parent updates from the Skyterra 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 guests in the program. This document is completed by both the guest and their coach and is reviewed with the guests at the end of each week. The parent update and report from the Skyterra team does not replace communication and connection between parents and guests during the week, but serves as a support and validation tool.

The foundation of the therapeutic wellness program at Skyterra 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 guest legacy project and skill-based learning. 

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

For more information about Skyterra Young Adult, click here.

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