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News & Views - December, 2001 Issue #88

Press Release...

UI Wilderness Therapy Study
Reveals Benefits to Adolescents


Keith Russell
College of Natural Resources, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho
208-885-2269 or keithr@uidaho.edu

Sue McMurray
CNR Communications, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho
208-885-6673 or suem@uidaho.edu

December 13, 2001

MOSCOW–A study of 858 adolescents participating in outdoor behavioral healthcare (OBH) treatment, often referred to as “wilderness therapy”, indicates significant reductions in behavioral and emotional symptoms as a result of this type of treatment.

A new 38-page report authored by Keith C. Russell, assistant professor and leader of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative in the University of Idaho-Wilderness Research Center, describes results of a nationwide study of participants in OBH programs in 2000. OBH is an emerging form of mental health treatment, which helps resistant adolescents overcome behavioral and emotional problems by integrating a wilderness challenge experience with residential treatment.

The study assessed at-risk adolescents, the majority of whom were males, ages 12-19, after an average of 38 days in treatment using the Youth Outcome Questionnaire (Y-OQ®). The Y-OQ is designed to measure treatment progress by assessing behavioral dysfunction, interpersonal distress, and social problems to reflect the adolescent’s well-being. The questionnaire was administered at admission and discharge from treatment to adolescent clients and their parents to gather perceptions as to the client’s baseline behavior and change following the treatment program.

Eighty-three percent of parents perceived their children’s clinical symptoms as improved as a result of treatment, and discharge scores were on average close to scores obtained from normal populations of adolescents. Statistically significant improvement was shown in behavioral dysfunction, interpersonal relations, and critical items, such as suicidal behavior. The findings confirm the idea that OBH treatment can improve behavior, reconcile family relations and help address the more serious underlying issues in adolescent’s lives that may drive problem behavior.

Clients perceived their symptoms at admission as less severe than did their parents (70.67 compared to 100.19 for parents), but discharge scores were similar (client discharge scores were 47.55 and parents 48.55). Russell suggests that the differences in parent and client assessments at admission could be a result of adolescents’ denial, not fully realizing or admitting the consequences of their past behaviors, but arriving at a clearer and more accurate assessment after treatment. He says that “the majority of clients entering OBH treatment do not want to be there and initially are extremely resistant to the process. They often believe there is no problem with their behaviors.”

Phase two of the study will analyze data from three-, six-, and 12- month follow-up assessments of the same clients. “Continuing the research will help determine how long, and to what degree the positive results of treatment are maintained,” said Russell, “and we also will examine how OBH treatment outcomes are affected by the kind of aftercare services utilized.”

This outcome assessment study is part of a program of research in the OBHRC of the UI’s Wilderness Research Center on the effects of wilderness therapy and outdoor treatment for at-risk adolescents. The research addresses questions of concern to parents, mental health practitioners, social service agencies, insurance companies, managed care facilities and land managers. The research is supported in part by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council, a group of leading programs seeking a knowledge base from which to improve treatment and industry standards. A prior study by Russell (Technical Report 26) identified 116 OBH programs currently operating, generating approximately $200 million dollars in annual revenues in this growing industry.

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