Wilderness Therapy Programs Ramping Up for Surge in Holiday Admissions

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Between school vacations, family gatherings, and an often stressful season, more families are turning to wilderness therapy programs for support in helping their troubled teens during the winter holidays.

Young people tend to focus more on the social scene during school vacations

The holiday season is a time for sharing, festivities, and good cheer. But for families with troubled teens, the holidays can be one of the most anxiety-ridden times of the year. As a result, parents of adolescents who are barely getting by in school or at home are taking advantage of the upcoming holiday break to enroll their teens in wilderness therapy.

Like other vacation periods such as summer and spring break, winter vacation means more down time, which leads to less rules and structure and more opportunities for struggling teens to engage in delinquent behavior. "Young people tend to focus more on the social scene during school vacations," says Kathy Rex, Executive Director of SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs. "Winter, even more so than summer, brings out school parties, which often come with underage drinking, substance use, and heightened emotions."

More down time also means more family time, which can escalate interpersonal conflicts and make evident problem behaviors that may have been less visible when school and work were in full swing, explains Michael Ervin, Regional Director at SUWS of the Carolinas, a therapeutic wilderness program in North Carolina.

The holidays can be full of stress and anxiety for adults as well as teens. Add to the bustle of family gatherings a teen who is angry, defiant, depressed, or otherwise acting out, and many parents are pushed to their breaking point.

"When the family system is stretched beyond its means, the holidays are a good time for everyone to go to their own corners, regroup, and then reconnect," says Rex. "With guidance from the field staff and therapists, the wilderness experience can help the family get their relationships back to a pure, enjoyable place where they recognize each other's strengths and abilities and have meaningful, productive communications. It's a strange irony, but being alone often helps us appreciate each other more."

Short-term wilderness programs keep struggling teens healthy, happy, and out of trouble, with as little time away from school as possible, notes Rex. The average wilderness program lasts 30-45 days, but programs like SUWS offer stays as brief as 14, 21, and 28 days.

"Time in the wilderness is an opportunity for at-risk adolescents to identify problems and focus on what is truly important in their lives," says Sue Crowell, Senior Vice President of Outdoor Programs at Aspen Education Group, the nation's largest and most comprehensive network of therapeutic schools and programs. "The teens may be missing out on this year's family functions, but a few weeks in the wilderness can change the whole next year around, and the years after that."

Spending the holidays in the wilderness can be one of the most memorable, enriching experiences a teen can have. Many wilderness programs make the holidays a special time in the field, honoring different religious holidays, offering days of reflection for students of all faiths, and preparing special meals on Thanksgiving and other holidays.

Even though the teens aren't at home with their parents and relatives, there is still a strong emphasis on family. Students of wilderness therapy become part of a cohesive unit of peers, or "wilderness family," that helps them understand their place in their own family and the importance of those family bonds.

According to Mike Bednarz, MA, MBA, Executive Director at SageWalk the Wilderness School in Oregon, many staff members volunteer to work on the holidays because it is a particularly rewarding time to be part of a child's experience away from home. "My times in the field during the holidays have been some of the best experiences I've had," says Bednarz. "Students are more attuned to wishing they were home, more thankful for what they have, and more willing to take an honest look at their lives. They may not be at home, but they know how much they are cared for."

The holidays can be an especially therapeutic time to be in the wilderness. Students often share favorite holiday memories and family traditions, and make special cards and gifts to send home. "Spending the holidays in the wilderness can be a real learning opportunity. It's a good time to reflect on what is missing in your life, what the holidays were like last year, and what they could be like next year," says Bednarz.

Wilderness therapy is an opportunity to address real concerns that tie into the teen's long-term health and safety in a caring, nurturing environment. And while distance is never easy, especially around the holidays, says Rex, "one holiday apart can bring a lifetime together."

SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs and SageWalk the Wilderness School are proud members of Aspen Education Group, the nation's largest and most comprehensive network of therapeutic schools and programs. Aspen Education Group offers professionals and families the opportunity to choose from a variety of therapeutic settings in order to best meet a student's unique academic and emotional needs.

Aspen Education Group has been profiled by major news and television organizations around the world, including U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and People magazine, as well as on CNN, ABC's 20/20 and Good Morning America, NBC's The Today Show and Dateline NBC, National Public Radio, and the syndicated television show Dr. Phil.

Aspen is a division of CRC Health Group, the nation's largest chemical dependency and related behavioral health organization. To learn more about Aspen Education Group, visit http://www.aspeneducation.com or call (888) 972-7736. For more information about SUWS, please call (888) 879-7897 or visit http://www.suws.com, and to learn more about SageWalk, please call (800) 877-1922 or visit http://www.sagewalk.com.


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