SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs Offers Guidance to Parents on Choosing the Safest Therapeutic Wilderness Program for Teens

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Safety is one of parents’ most important concerns when it comes to choosing a summer program for their teen. The experts at SUWS wilderness program offer insights on the features to look for and describe some of the safety protocols in place at SUWS.

Wilderness therapy is a powerful experience for teens, but it is our responsibility to make it the safest one possible.

As another school year comes to a close, parents all over the country have begun researching summer programs for their teens. For those teens who struggled to get through the school year because of poor academic performance, rule-breaking, defiance and other negative behaviors, wilderness therapy programs are often the most effective option.

But how do parents know if a wilderness program is safe? The specialists at SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs in Idaho, a wilderness program with an exceptional safety record, advise parents to look for programs with the following features:

  • Medical exams and a thorough pre-screening process
  • 24-hour access to medical personnel
  • Hydration requirements
  • Medication management
  • Ongoing health checks and physical assessments
  • Additional precautions in inclement weather
  • Weather- and activity-appropriate clothing, gear and equipment
  • Evacuation plans
  • Staff safety training and drills
  • Well-established, research-backed therapies

SUWS is a wilderness program for pre-teens and adolescents that goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure students’ safety. Before being admitted to SUWS, the staff gathers background information and a health history from each student, which they discuss with a board certified physician who provides 24-hour support.

“Safety begins long before a child reaches our door,” said Cliff Stockton, the program director at SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs.

Once teens are admitted to SUWS, they go through a pre-screening process and physical exam to ensure fitness to participate in the wilderness program. For a student’s first 48 hours in the field, the staff limits their activity and monitors their health. After 48 hours, the staff performs a physical assessment and if all is clear, the group ramps up to full activity.

“We take whatever steps are needed to keep our students safe,” said Stockton, who has been in charge of health and safety at SUWS for many years and has helped maintain the program’s impressive safety record. “If safety is ever in question, our groups stop hiking and wait for clearance.”

Staff training is a critical component of safety at any wilderness program. At SUWS, all head field instructors are Wilderness First Responders, which means they have received approximately 80 hours of advanced training in how to respond to emergency situations in wilderness settings.

The field instructors at SUWS track each teen’s food and water intake, requiring students to drink roughly one quart of water per 25 pounds of body weight to ensure adequate hydration. The staff takes the students’ temperature every day, conducts feet and hand checks multiple times per day, and thoroughly investigates any and all complaints.

The field staff is aware of any changes in weather and adjusts the group’s agenda accordingly. Each student receives weather-appropriate clothing treated with insect repellent, as appropriate, and all of the gear and equipment they’ll need to live in the wilderness. Although the high desert of Idaho tends to be fairly dry with low humidity, if the temperature reaches 90 degrees in summer the groups stop hiking. If the temperature dips below 20 degrees in winter, the groups move indoors.

The groups in the field are in regular contact with base via multiple forms of communication, including radio and cell phones. Because the 200 square miles of field area at SUWS is located next to base, as compared to other programs that have to travel two or three hours away to get to student groups, the staff is able to respond quickly to any student need.

“Wilderness therapy is a powerful experience for teens,” said Stockton, “but it is our responsibility to make it the safest one possible.”

About SUWS

SUWS offers therapeutic wilderness programs for boys and girls ages 11 to 17 with a focus on clinical intervention and assessment. Based in southern Idaho, the programs use the outdoors as an alternative to conventional treatment environments, while engaging students using traditional therapeutic methods. Since 1981, SUWS programs have provided guidance and support to thousands of misdirected and at-risk teens experiencing low self-esteem, defiant behavior, attention deficit, depression, substance abuse, and other emotional and behavioral issues.

SUWS is a program of Aspen Education Group, the nation’s leading provider of therapeutic education programs for struggling or underachieving young people. Aspen’s services range from short-term intervention programs to residential treatment, and include a variety of therapeutic settings such as boarding schools, outdoor behavioral health programs and special needs summer camps, allowing professionals and families the opportunity to choose the best setting to meet a student’s unique academic and emotional needs.

Aspen Education Group is a member of CRC Health Group, the most comprehensive network of specialized behavioral care services in the nation. For over two decades, CRC Health has been achieving successful outcomes for individuals and families.

For more information, please call (866) 515-5202 or visit SUWS.


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Kathy Rex
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