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Walking Back Into the Woods for Mental Health

Updated: Aug 22, 2018

By Olivia Baccellieri

Art by Vayl Sorensen

Soil, leaves, insects … as therapeutic techniques? In recent years we have made numerous advancements within the technological and medical fields. With these progressions, we are able to utilize newer methods to treat mental health issues which have affected significant proportions of the global population over time. However, these innovations can be a double-edged sword, as advancements in technology may also simultaneously cause an increase in these particular mental health issues. Adolescents are vulnerable to the negative effects of social media platforms, as they may encounter unrealistic expectations or potential cyberbullying, which may contribute to feelings of anxiety or depression. This increase of technology in everyday life has increased the amount of time people spend in front of screens, instead of living in the outside world beyond their electronic realities.

Between 2005 and 2014, the rate of major depressive episodes experienced by teenagers in Western countries has increased from 8.7% to 11.3%, and a 2010 study found that 22.2% of adolescents met the clinical assessment criteria for severe impairment or distress. Over the last decade, adolescents have increased their use of the Internet threefold, specifically with 60% of those beyond the age of 15 spending more than three hours of their day using technology. With this surge in anxiety and depression diagnoses, psychologists have sought alternatives to treat this increasing number of adolescents struggling with mental health issues.

One such innovative alternative mental health technique is wilderness therapy, which seeks to immerse patients in outdoor settings to complete their treatment programs. Typical wilderness therapy programs can involve hiking, overnight camping, outdoor group therapy sessions, or tending to plants. Wilderness therapists argue that, with our increasing use of technology and time spent indoors, we have become more detached from the original hunter-gatherer mentality, and have adapted to a contemporary climate that is “incongruent to our constitutional make-up”. This ultimately results in nature-deficit disorder (Gabrielsen & Harper, 2017).

Through participating in outdoor activities and reacquainting themselves with nature, adolescents create more meaningful connections with their environment. The structure of wilderness therapy allows for patients to return to the fundamental nature of the human existence, which in turn nurtures their mental health toward a more stable plane. Patients learn by doing, as they set up their shelters, grow plants, and cross difficult terrain. This “green exercise” has been shown to boost positive moods, encourage participation in activities, and decrease feelings related to anxiety and depression.

However, this practice is not attainable for the majority of patients afflicted with anxiety or depression, as wilderness therapy is considered to be a more novel approach for treating mental illness, and therefore, is not covered by most insurance companies. It is certainly not the only effective method for treating mental illness, as the particular success of medications and other therapeutic practices are well-documented, and may be more suitable or realistic compared to wilderness therapy for some patients. Due to this reality, western societies need to make an effortful attempt to normalize more activities that take place beyond walls and screens. Encouraging adolescents to engage in simple tasks, such as taking more walks outside, or spending less time using electronics, can reduce feelings related to nature-deficit disorder, or those associated with their anxiety or depression.

Anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions are constantly debated within the “nature vs. nurture” paradigm. In contemporary society, the increasing technification of our cultures has increased the prevalence of anxiety and depression amongst adolescents. These conditions can also have biological markers, including specific neurotransmitter deficiencies, or hormone imbalances, which suggests that mental health disorders contain factors pertaining to both nature and nurture aspects. Wilderness therapy engages both of these tenants - nature and nurture - in a multitude of ways.

This therapeutic technique examines our fundamental nature as humans - as we were once meant to be out in the wild, free from the concrete jungles of today’s societies - and how immersing oneself in these environments is vital for decreasing feelings of anxiety and depression associated with the pressures of contemporary cultures. It further questions how the environments we have built for ourselves in modern-day times lack particular elements to nurture our mental and physical selves. The double-edged sword of technology in our society allows for adolescents to feel more connected than in past generations, but at a potential detriment to their health. Although a relatively new approach, wilderness therapy provides a skilled methodology for treating mental health conditions that have afflicted people for long periods of time through bringing us back to the way humans once were, in an effort to reconnect with past virtues that have disappeared from present times.


Gabrielsen, L. E., & Harper, N. J. (2017). The role of wilderness therapy for adolescents in the face of global trends of urbanization and technification. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 1-13.

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