When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far

“What we see is that these places are almost always in remote areas or near small towns, and they create a situation where everyone in the region is a big proponent of the facility,” Bush says. “They provide a lot of jobs and stimulate the local economy, and that creates a sense of pride that they’re helping the youth of America. So there’s social capital to having one of these in your area. Moreover, because the youth that are put there are predominantly at risk for something—either they have some peer problems or behavior problems or social problems, etcetera—when something happens to them, people tend to dismiss it as, ‘Well, they’re bad teens.’”

Bush is concerned that the lack of regulation is creating an environment where untrained staff is often given free rein with an extremely vulnerable population.

“[These programs] call themselves wilderness therapy or come up with their own categories so that they can avoid the criteria that would apply to, for example, a mental health treatment facility,” she says. “Then because they’re not regulated, no one is really ensuring that their staff has adequate training, and in many cases we’ve seen, the staff are by no means qualified to provide the type of care that is being advertised and certainly not the type of care that these facilities require.”

According to Redcliff’s clinical director, Eric Fawson, their staff is more than adequately trained in wilderness therapy and isn’t allowed into the field before undergoing an extensive orientation program, although there aren’t any educational requirements for them to work at Redcliff.

“Wilderness staff are very passionate about what they do,” he says. “You have to be … a lot of our staff is educated. They have Bachelor’s degrees in all kinds of different fields … but as far as education, there isn’t an expectation.”

In Utah, which has many such programs, there is a regulatory body within the Division of Administrative Rules that oversees wilderness programs, with an extensive code of rules. And some of these businesses, including Redcliff, have formed an organization, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), which has its own guidelines and requirements for membership, although they aren’t as specific as the Utah regulations. 

Despite the fact that some medical professionals view wilderness therapy as a kind of unreliable fringe treatment, Fawson says that’s because they associate these programs with the widely discredited “boot camp” mentality that was so pervasive at the therapy’s inception. He maintains that wilderness therapeutic methods have evolved greatly since they were first conceived.

“We’re actually in the process of trying to be one of the first programs to set standards for wilderness therapy as well,” Fawson says. “The research we have indicates that wilderness therapy is extremely impactful. I think that the larger psychological community doesn’t understand it because it’s so far outside the box.”

Fawson says Redcliff’s approach ranges from disrupting unhealthy family dynamics to teaching teenagers responsibility and independence.

“Wilderness therapy is all experiential and metaphoric as well,” he explains. “The hard part to conceptualize … is the actual sand and the dirt and the sagebrush and the tarps, and digging a pit, and what all that means in the process. That’s not therapist-driven. That’s driven by the wilderness … the other thing that Redcliff is built on is that mundane part. I mean, we embrace that, to let them go ahead and fight and sit in the dirt for a while and see what that’s like … but we’re also a very clinically sophisticated program, with therapists that regularly see the kids.” 

And many former students of Utah programs do report successful treatment with wilderness therapy. At a Redcliff Ascent outpost, a destination coveted by students for its outhouse (they usually dig latrines while camping), Richard, a lanky, tanned 15-year-old from the U.K. who prefers his real name not be used, sits with his parents and two counselors around an unused fire pit. There’s no fire because the weather in the region has become too hot and dry, and a ban has been instituted to prevent forest fires. This means that making fire manually, one of the linchpins of Redcliff’s therapy, is not allowed, so instead, students use their equipment to make coals, which are quickly blown out. Richard is done with making coals for the moment, though. He just graduated from Redcliff after an 85-day stay, and his parents seem overjoyed to see him.

“I think we got to the point where things were going to end badly unless we did something,” his mother says when asked why they placed Richard in the program.

“Things got so tough, we were running out of options,” his father says.

“We were on two or three 999 calls a week—that’s the equivalent of 911 in England.”

“I was acting out, being disrespectful,” Richard adds. “I’ve always had a short temper, then I started smoking weed and doing drugs all the time, and it got worse.”

Richard says the first few weeks at Redcliff were extremely difficult for him.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” he says. “I was in the red suit for a while, and I tried to run. I was being argumentative towards staff; I refused to eat and drink. I wanted to leave.”

Students are made to wear red suits if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, and according to Redcliff standards, Richard definitely fit the bill when he first arrived.

“We got an amazing letter from Richard in the beginning,” his mother adds. “It was three pages long and beautifully written. Longest thing I’ve ever seen him write, and it basically said ‘Get me the hell out of here.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my God. What have we done?’ But we knew that if we brought him back, nothing was going to change.”

“In the last six hours, we’ve noticed a huge change,” his father says with pride.

“You have?” Richard asks.

“Christ, yes.”

“Just the way he looks!” his mother says. “His eyes are just completely different. Before he came here, they had changed color and sunk in. He was gone. Now his eyes have gone back to what they used to be like. When he came walking out of the woods, I couldn’t believe it. His eyes were this bright, amazing, shining blue that just smacks you—like they used to be, before all the trouble.”

Richard’s father pulls out a tablet, displaying a photo of Richard the day he was admitted to Redcliff. In the picture, he’s squinting, his face bloated and spotted with acne.

“Compare that person to the boy you see now,” his father says.

Asked if they’re worried about bringing Richard back home, to a place of familiar stresses and temptations, his father sobers for a moment.

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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