Does Wilderness Treatment Work?

For this outcome study the Youth Outcome Questionnaire (YOQ) with a sample of 858 kids and their families from seven programs over a full year. The YOQ is a simple but well-researched and solid therapeutic outcome test on which higher scores indicate greater behavioral/mental health disorder.

Average scores for adolescents admitted to a psychiatric hospital are about 100; average score for teens in outpatient treatment are 78; the average community adolescent score is 23. The upper limit of the normal community range is 46.

Our results showed that kids enter wilderness treatment programs with scores of about 100, as rated by their parents. (The kids believe they are much better off than that.) At discharge, ranging from three eight weeks later depending on the program, the parents scored their kids at about 49, just outside the normal community range.

At three and six months after discharge, kids’ scores rose slightly, to 56 and 57, but not statistically significantly, before trending back down to 49 again at 12 months. In other words, contrary to a common opinion about brief, intense treatments, the therapeutic and behavioral gains of outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment were sustained over 12 months.

A follow-up study published in 2004, when these clients were two to three years out of their outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment, called 88 of these families and kids (selected for their representativeness) to ask how they were doing, using a structured interview. Some of the important results:

  • 83 percent were doing better, and 58 percent were doing well or very well. 17 percent were still “struggling.”
  • 81 percent rated outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment as effective; 10 percent split between “not effective” and “not sure” or “partially effective.”
  • 86 percent were in high school or college, or had graduated from high school and were working. Six had graduated from high school but were living at home and “doing nothing;” only five had not graduated from high school, and these were living at home and working or “doing nothing,” and one was in prison.
  • Russell, K.C.(2005). Two years later: A qualitative assessment of youth-well-being and the role of aftercare in outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment. Child and Youth Care Forum, 34, 3, 209-239.
  • Russell, K.C. (2003). Assessing treatment outcomes in outdoor behavioral healthcare using the Youth Outcome Questionnaire. Child and Youth Care Forum. 32, 6, 355-381.
  • Russell, K.C. (2004). Two years later A qualitative assessment of youth-well-being and the role of aftercare in outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment. Technical Report 1, Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative, School of Health and Human Services, University of New Hampshire, Durham NH. 43 pp.
  • Russell, K.C. (2002). A longitudinal assessment of treatment outcomes in outdoor behavioral healthcare. Technical Report 28, Idaho Forest Wildlife and Range Experiment Station, Moscow, ID. 35 pp.
  • Russell, K. C. (2002). Does outdoor behavioral healthcare work? A review of studies on the effectiveness of OBH as an intervention and treatment. Journal of Therapeutic Camping, Summer/Fall, 2, 1, 5-12.