For as long as humans have built communities for shelter, there has been a tradition of periodic return to the wilderness for rejuvenation and perspective. The power of a wilderness experience draws from the revelation of your existence simplified to what it truly is: a fragile tenure upon the surface of the Earth, with basic survival needs that must be met in order to continue.
When you factor in the challenges and rewards of group living, problems back home that seemed overwhelming and insurmountable can shrink to a manageable scale.
“Wilderness therapy” describes therapeutic programs that build on the healing benefits of the outdoors to address problems common to at-risk youth. Many studies have shown wilderness therapy to succeed where other forms of therapy have failed.
You could say it’s only natural that wilderness therapy has grown into a billion dollar industry. Many wilderness therapy operators are for-profit businesses. In the non-profit category is a small, Missoula-based outfit called Inner Roads. Yet despite a record of success, Inner Roads finds itself on the verge of a funding crisis.
Trouble began brewing not long after one of the larger wilderness therapy organizations, Alternative Youth Adventures (AYA), lost its $2.2 million contract with the state of Montana. This contract had allowed judges and probation officers to send troubled youth to AYA programs, without needing to worry where the funds would come from to pay for the treatment.
Soon after AYA lost its contract, it threw its weight behind legislation requiring that wilderness therapy programs be licensed by the state if they receive state funds.
Rayelynn Connole, an AYA program director, spoke of the dangers of wilderness therapy during a legislative hearing, citing recent deaths in wilderness therapy programs in other states, and argued that Montana should seize the opportunity to be “proactive in its approach to licensing.”
Safety is a concern shared by many people, including Glen Welch, a probation officer in Missoula, who worries that without licensing requirements, those who refer at-risk kids to wilderness therapy might be liable in the event of an accident.
Michael Hudson, executive director of Inner Roads, shares the concerns about safety, and supports the concept of licensing, but wonders why all wilderness therapy providers in Montana–not just those who receive state funds–aren’t required to be licensed.
The new law now obliges state-funded wilderness therapy programs to become licensed, but the state has yet to determine what the license requirements are. The draft licensing requirements, which will open for a month-long public comment period next week, are very restrictive, says Hudson.
“If the rules pass, as written, they won’t allow for much more than sitting around a campfire, talking,” says Hudson. “If that’s all it is, there isn’t much point.”
Tim Ballard, a Missoula counselor with years of wilderness thereapy experience with several organizations agrees that safety is of the utmost importance, but worries that the new regulations, if too restrictive, could stifle the healing process.
“The perception of risk is important,” he says, “even if the actual risk is minimal. Wilderness therapy works because you are pushing the comfort zones, pushing into the unknown.”
Until the requirements are finalized, Inner Roads has no way of becoming eligible to receive state funds. Caught in this bureaucratic limbo, while facing increased restrictions on their activities, the program is feeling the pinch from all sides.
“Lack of state funding,” says Hudson, “hurts our prospects for partnering with other organizations.” He is referring specifically to Missoula Youth Homes, which has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Inner Roads, an agreement that could lead to a future merger of the two organizations.
“Missoula Youth Homes wants a sustainable partner, with sustainable cash flow,” says Hudson. When your goal is to service the low-income side of the population, state funding is crucial.”
Beyond its non-profit status, Inner Roads is unique in its whole-family, whole-community approach to therapy. “The kids often do great, but if the parents aren’t doing work too, the problem will often resurface,” explains Hudson.
Rather than focus their work on the at-risk youngster in question, Inner Roads works with the whole family. While the clients are in the backcountry for four weeks, the parents are meeting with counseling groups at home, preparing for long-term change upon the return of their child. When the child returns, he or she joins their parents in community service projects, helping the family bond with itself and its large community.
Meanwhile, AYA has since pulled out of Montana altogether, though the AYA-supported bill remains. Hudson is preparing a series of comments on the draft licensing requirements, comments that he hopes will allow Inner Roads to continue to offer their brand of therapy, while addressing important safety and liability concerns.
“Missoula could be the first city in the country to provide this kind of service to our children and their families,” says Hudson. “I hope the community can rally behind us. We welcome support.”