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"The Sad Truth of Wilderness Therapy" by SaraJane Devereaux

TW: Suicide, Wilderness therapy, Assault, Mental health, Death


Wilderness therapy was created by Kurt Hahn in an attempt to create an environment where families and/or teens regain life skills through being disconnected from society and placed in the wilderness where they are forced to learn how to survive on their own. This has been said to be effective, but it has also been the result of 194 deaths and even more that weren’t reported of people under the age of 18 due to starvation, lack of sleep, exhaustion, dehydration, altitude sickness, and heat stroke among many other causes.


This type of therapy was created in the hopes that teens who are struggling with behavioral issues will gain respect and learn how to function in social situations. Instead, it became a place where parents of troubled teens would send their children so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the decisions that their child was making.


In 1990, a fifteen-year-old named Michelle Sutton had been sent to the wilderness therapy program Summit Quest of St. George. Only six days into her program, she died. The causes of her death were altitude sickness, dehydration and heat exhaustion (The Salt Lake Tribune). Andrea Dawes, Michelle Sutton’s best friend, came forward and said that Michelle had been asking for water, but the program directors had refused to give it to her. The family of Michelle took Summit Quest to court to get justice for their daughter. Instead of going all the way to court, Summit Quest agreed to give them $350,000 to withdraw their lawsuit. The Summit Quest Operator at the time, Gayle Palmer, had said that Michelle had died of a drug overdose. The autopsy had debunked that myth by stating that the girl died of dehydration. Another teen, Aaron Bacon, who was just sixteen-years-old died in March of 1994, four years after wilderness therapy was founded. Aaron was enrolled in the program North Star Expeditions in Escalante, Utah. The boy died of peritonitis and a perforated ulcer (The Salt Lake Tribune). Eight employees were charged with different sentences, ranging from negligent homicide resulting in community service and restitution, to attempted abuse of a disabled child ordering jail time. This specific program was shut down because of the death of Aaron Bacon. Not only were some of the deaths of these teens related to physical health, some were related to mental health. Many teens would be sent to wilderness therapy programs due to mental health struggles. This program made it harder for them to function and made their suicidal thoughts even worse, leading to suicides. Sadly, this was not a rare thing. At least 29 of the teens died due to unaliving themselves.

Most of the time, when teens were sent off to wilderness therapy, they would have no clue what was happening. Their parents would sign them up without their permission or knowledge and then days later, people would come to their home in the middle of the night and take them out of their beds with hardly any personal belongings and fly them out to wherever their program was located, the teen still not knowing what was about to happen to them.


On the website aspireoadventure.com/wilderness-therapy-programs/, it says that they are teaching “healthy coping strategies”. This is a lie. They would not allow a girl to have water, causing her to die. That is not healthy. That is taking away basic needs from these children and making it so that their lives are on the line. That is not teaching healthy coping strategies, it’s teaching teens that they don’t matter enough to these adults, most definitely causing even more trauma.


Therapy is healthy and should be accessible to anyone who would like to have it, but there needs to be a line drawn when that therapy is also the reason teens are dying. And quite frankly, wilderness therapy is not therapy. It is not doing any healing.


On May 17th, the user @gallaghersquirellfund on TikTok posted a video explaining her experience with wilderness therapy. In the video, she writes that “I was kidnapped by strangers and took here. I was 14. I was underfed and overworked. Exposed to the elements. Refused contact with the outside world. Assaulted by adults. Psychologically tortured. Forced to eat dirt. No shower for 4 months. No one knew where I was. I watched everyone around me try to unalive. No one came to save me.”


More videos like this have come up, people using the hashtag #breakingcodesilence. This hashtag now has over 442.5 Million views on TikTok. Under this hashtag, you will find thousands of videos of people who were in wilderness therapy talking about their horrific experience and hoping to bring awareness to the fact that it is traumatic, unethical, and needs to stop.


Below, there will be some TikToks linked to some of these people's stories:


https://www.tiktok.com/@hayleycaddes/video/7063965126361337134?_t=8TEzk2L0z8t &_r=1


https://www.tiktok.com/@whatkyrakept/video/7004621718094368005?_t=8TEzvTa5MZ W&_r=1


https://www.tiktok.com/@leila.wilson/video/7103683324937309483?_t=8TF0KAefs1S& _r=1

https://www.tiktok.com/@danielthemammal/video/6970075131444055301?_t=8TF0co4 KFji&_r=1


Here are links to resources for SAFE therapy for teens and adults:


https://theranest.com/resources/?utm_term=&utm_campaign=MBH+%7C+TN+%7C+Go ogle+%7C+Search+Telehealth&utm_source=adwords&utm_medium=ppc&hsa_acc=944 6724526&hsa_cam=9592199718&hsa_grp=136464606448&hsa_ad=567896244614&hs a_src=g&hsa_tgt=dsa-1515971788996&hsa_kw=&hsa_mt=&hsa_net=adwords&hsa_ver =3&gclid=Cj0KCQjwzLCVBhD3ARIsAPKYTcRrxwprQA1FHce7H8Nlmk4tZaA68ElC noRV2WmYZjfl3oSQHfcl-EsaAgjnEALw_wcB


https://www.betterhelp.com/helpme/?utm_source=AdWords&utm_medium=Search_PPC _c&utm_term=therapist_p&utm_content=131449602866&network=g&placement=&targ et=&matchtype=p&utm_campaign=15797500300&ad_type=text&adposition=&gclid=Cj 0KCQjwzLCVBhD3ARIsAPKYTcS3K9yXY9yiJGQs1m-lu9Vwiw-elgjCJ0AxZRKpkN ZbzPzaJFuJogYaAhNBEALw_wcB&not_found=1&gor=helpme


If you feel that you are struggling, do not feel ashamed to get help. You are not alone.


Bibliography:


-https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/09/therapy-wild

-https://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/news/ci_7139316

-https://aspiroadventure.com/wilderness-therapy-programs/

-https://www.deseret.com/1992/2/1/18965215/summit-quest-to-pay-family-345-000-br -https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/life-and-death-in-a-troubled-teen-boot-camp -31639/

-https://1000placesudontwanttobe.wordpress.com/victims-of-the-troubled-teen-industry/



SaraJane Devereaux (pronounced: Dev-er-Row) is a poet and student from Las Vegas, Nevada. SaraJane has a passion for literature and film and would like to study both in college as well as music technology. She is an honors student and is currently secretary of their schools chapter of NHS and is determined and works hard. They have worked with Feed Us With Words, Blue Things Zine, Paper Crane Journal and more! She writes articles on things that inspire them.

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