Response to Guardian article: The wilderness ‘therapy’ that teens say feels like abuse

In November, The Guardian wrote an article about wilderness therapy. When responding to these articles, the OBH Council will never seek to discredit or invalidate individual experiences. We will, however, always work to provide accurate, credible information. After reaching out to the Guardian and corresponding a few times, inaccuracies weren’t corrected. Below is the email we sent to the Guardian.


I’m writing a response to your article The wilderness ‘therapy’ that teens say feels like abuse: ‘You are on guard at all times’ published on November 14, 2022. I wanted to acknowledge the story you shared and provide some clarifying details because I noticed a few common errors about the Research Center, and introduce you to the OBH Council and our third-party accreditor, the Association for Experiential Education, most known as AEE.

Thank you for sharing Rowan Bissett’s story. Hers, like many others, highlights the breakdowns where there are inconsistencies around regulation. We hear these stories, and they break our hearts. Our job isn’t to deny these experiences, but instead honor them and ask ourselves ‘what systems are in place that allow this to happen and what can we learn from it, and how to make changes to prevent it’.

This is one reason why the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH Council) was created almost 27 years ago – to create opportunities for leading outdoor behavioral healthcare programs to work together to advance the field through better practices and innovation, effective treatment, and evidence-based research.

The field of outdoor behavioral healthcare, including wilderness therapy, has evolved and many programs are not the military-style boot camps that are often described. It’s clear that nature can play a powerful role in healing and building resiliency. Like the field of OBH, our organization has grown as well. In 2013, we partnered with AEE to expand on their existing standards to better reflect wilderness programs.

The OBH Council is not an accrediting body, and we felt that it was appropriate to develop the partnership with AEE as this provides healthy boundaries and oversight. In your article, you also mentioned that there are 22 OBHC-accredited organizations. As stated, the Research Center doesn’t accredit organizations, nor does the OBH Council. The OBH Council currently has 20 members, all of which are accredited through AEE.

 In 2015, the Council supported the creation of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Center (OBHC), a separate entity from the OBH Council as well as our third-party accreditor, AEE.

The Research Center is located at the University of New Hampshire, where they focus on research within the field of outdoor behavioral healthcare, not just wilderness therapy. Our member programs are required to participate in outcomes-based research and provide yearly risk-management data, which is utilized by the research team at the OBHC.

As your article mentioned, there are no federal regulations and legislation varies state-to-state. These data help us set our programs apart from others. Research done by the Research Center helps provide context and recommendations that the Council utilizes to develop better practices and standards for our members, as well as wilderness-specific recommendations we share with AEE as they own the accreditation process for many different experiential education organizations.

The article also stated that there are 59 wilderness therapy programs in Utah. If you search Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services verification site, you’ll find companies licensed in the state of Utah categorized as outdoor youth programs, seven of these programs are OBH Council members and are accredited through AEE. This doesn’t mean more don’t exist, but it means that they may not be licensed or are utilizing a different license, and may not actually be wilderness therapy, but offer outdoor behavioral healthcare.

Your article, like many others, also highlights the dysfunction systemic issues we see in our healthcare system and society. Mental health treatment is still stigmatized, diagnoses aren’t taken seriously, and access (financially and geographically) are issues facing many living in the United States. Mental wellness is a lifelong journey and it’s not always easy. It’s also important to understand that not every modality of care fits every person, and that’s ok too. We recognize that OBH and wilderness therapy may not be the right fit for everyone, but that doesn’t negate how it has helped countless others.


The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council