Ask an Expert: How Effective Are Youth Wilderness Recovery Programs?

By Rita Milios 02/03/15
Today's question is on whether it's a good idea to send a recovering teenage addict to college right after treatment instead of a wilderness recovery retreat.

My dear friend's 18 year old son is currently in a court-mandated treatment program (outpatient) as well as suboxone treatment. (First arrest was couple weeks ago for possession) He is addicted to snorting oxycodone. He has been using since 2012. Began Suboxone 2 months ago. Mother doubts he is fully compliant...but the random court drug testing will provide answers. He plans to begin college in the fall, located about an hour from home. He believes he will be safe from using because his suppliers will not be around. However, the school he plans to attend has a very bad heroin problem...our fear is that he will begin using heroin....

It defies logic to send him to this environment. My instincts, as well as others close to him, are to remove him from his current life and place him in a program like Intercept offered by Outward Bound. I have been doing research to determine the success rate of programs like they work? The idea of 60 days removed from mainstream society, living in the wilderness, developing survival skills, and expanding the mind to break through dysfunctional thinking would be a powerful treatment.

Does anyone have any feedback on the effectiveness of these programs? We are working hard to find the best treatment option for him?

Rita Milios: There are both some real successes and some worrisome failures regarding wilderness programs. A 16-year-old Outward Bound wilderness program participant died in 2006 while participating in one of this organization’s programs in Colorado. According to a National Geographic report, she was the program’s first fatality in ten years, but their 24th fatality overall (in 46 years of running such programs).

On the other hand, a study by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH -- an organization formed in 1996 by a group of wilderness treatment program organizations to conduct research and collaborate on best practices) states that 81% of wilderness program graduates interviewed for a 2004 study reported their behavioral treatment as being “successful,” and their goals having been sustained for one year.

However, in your specific question, I detect some red flags. First, the potential program attendee is 18 years old, and for many programs this is the age where parents cannot force participation. It does not sound like this particular 18- year-old has sufficient motivation - you say his mom doubts his compliance with his current treatment. Most of these wilderness programs, as well as other recovery programs, stress that success is mainly determined by the motivation of the participant. So without sufficient motivation on the son’s part, this or any other treatment could be wasted.

My suggestion would be for the parents simply to reduce their co-dependent interactions with their son and require more personal responsibility and commitment from him before they shell out money for a recovery program or college. Realistically, he is probably not ready to go away to college right now, if doing so would put him at risk for continued (or even greater) addiction. And the parents certainly do not have to pay for college under these circumstances. They could simply tell their son that until he is completely drug-free and demonstrates a commitment to maintaining this status, they will not pay to send him to college.

The parents could suggest any number of different treatment programs to their son. But ultimately, it is up to him to decide if he is motivated and wants to be free from addiction. Perhaps giving him a wake-up call by withholding college funds could help him consider his options. (To view studies by the OBH Council, go to



Rita Milios, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice, author of more than 30 books, and frequent professional lecturer and on-camera expert. She also facilitates workshops and training for clinicians, therapists, writers, holistic practitioners, businesses and associations. She is known as "The Mind Mentor" because of her unique approach to “mind tools training.”   Full Bio.

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