Extended Insights
Extended Insights

May 5, 2008, 22:04

By: Rick McClintock - Executive Director, NATWC

NATWC has created the National Wilderness Counselor Certification, the only nationally recognized certification specifically for counselors in the field of wilderness therapy. NATWC's primary mission is to provide both the standards for best practices among wilderness counselors and the recognition they deserve as professionals in a challenging and effective field.

Outdoor residential treatment programs that serve youth and their families have emerged as powerful resources for transforming circumstances of potential loss in the juvenile justice/ mental health systems into instances of success and turnaround. A substantial body of research exists and continues to be conducted that verifies the effectiveness of outdoor therapeutic programming. Conducting therapy in the natural environment adds features like challenge and adventure that facilitate significant personal growth and youth leadership.

The idea of certification for wilderness counseling has been argued and contemplated for a number of years within the fields of adventure therapy, wilderness programming and experiential education. The historical headlong rush for labeled qualifications has been seen as an affront to authenticity and experientially gained expertise, the acquisition of degrees a specialization at best and essentially an accoutrement.

An intensive discussion and extended periods of time for argument and reflection have been necessary and naturally appreciated in the context of integrity and process of the group -- the practitioners and their constituents. A majority now exists that a standard of training, ethical behavior and education should characterize the counselor who works with youth benefiting from outdoor therapeutic programming.

As a relatively new model for assisting youth and families, incidents of mortal events can shock an uninformed public, inciting reaction in a rush to find the culprit. When an incident has occurred at a particular program, some reports have indicted the entire industry. Since risk management studies have revealed wilderness programming is as safe as a high school gym class, such accusations are unfair.

Nobody wants accidents or incidents to occur and all want quality and competence to be at the highest. The attacks by some media sensationalize events and often make conclusions about outdoor and alternative programs based on these incidents. Although some articles do take a broader perspective and acknowledge the many successes, some popular magazines question this type of programming and conclude that they should not be utilized. Obtaining market share should not be a motivation for inaccurately depicting people engaged in effective procedures of counseling and education.

Quite commonly, the articles confuse wilderness programs with boot camp programs, failing to acknowledge that these are two different approaches for two different kinds of problem circumstances. Some of the historical incidents have occurred in programs that offer questionable training and permit poorly trained and qualified staff to deal with overwhelming issues. Others have happened despite the best efforts and intentions of quality program management. Sadly, this occurs in every helping profession, especially in times of poor funding for social services, and certainly is a risk in many activities that no one would ever ban, such as boating, skiing, football and driving.

What are the benefits of the National Wilderness Counseling Certification? For the counselor, certification gives recognition for the knowledge and experience that are critical to this profession. It offers increased legitimacy of therapeutic wilderness counselors as professionals and allows counselors to compare qualifications with best practices in the field, ensuring that they have all of the skills required for the job. National wilderness counselor certification maintains proof of competency regardless of the employment circumstances of counselors.

For therapeutic wilderness programs, certifications permit a more accurate assessment of counselors being interviewed for employment in the field. The requirements also offer excellent benchmarks for assuring complete staff training. They provide a much-needed standardization of qualifications across the field. Certifying staff also boosts morale when used to help qualify promotions. Risk management is enhanced by having trained staff, which can be a helpful benefit when negotiating insurance rates.

Outcomes are often directly proportional to the therapeutic alliance created between staff and the client and their family. Having well informed, well trained staff that know how to use that training and education to foster a "Team" approach in developing and reviewing treatment plans and strategies aids in putting clients in a physical and emotional "Safety Zone." This in turn helps complete the full circle back to "Best Practices."

The National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camping is sponsoring the certification of wilderness counselors, requiring the achievement of skills and competencies detailed in the listing for designation to one of three levels of certification: National Wilderness Counselor, Senior Wilderness Counselor and Master Wilderness Counselor. Certification for national wilderness counselors encompasses the highest features of professional qualifications by incorporating peer review, national examination, degree accomplishments, intern/ residency requirements and performance assessment. Successive levels of certification add to its capacity for guiding professional development and enhancing recognized competency.

The list of skills and competencies consists of a checklist that permits the determination of accomplishments. Individuals desiring to meet certification requirements can demonstrate achievement through a qualifying score on a national exam and then personally to a person authorized in the procedures for certification. Documentation of achievement, including transcripts from regionally accredited colleges and universities, is completed and forwarded to the certification committee of NATWC for examination. Approval or a reply that indicates needed documentation follows NATWC processing.

In the spirit of "Best Practices" The National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camping submits that the issues of industry regulation, program accreditation and practitioner credentialing must be embraced by vested organizations as well as individual practitioners. Those vested parties must step forward to insure that industry representatives are at the table when discussions and decisions pertinent to the industry are undertaken. The importance of marketing our successes is critical to the relative health of this industry. NATWC offers "one piece of this pie" specific to practitioner credentialing through the National Wilderness Counselor Certification, as one step toward Best Practice.

The certification is available for review and/or participation on a CD, and includes: certification rationale, milieu specific historical information, ethical considerations, industry research submissions, theoretical structures and philosophy papers and the Certification Documents.

Inquiries about the Certification CD or membership to the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camping can be made through contacting the Rick McClintock.

About the Author:
Rick McClintock is the Executive Director and Membership Chairman for the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camping. For more information, you can contact him via email at, by phone at 724-329-1098 or by mail at 274 Brown Hill Road, Markleysburg, PA 15459,

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