Adventure Therapy is a field which devotes itself to mental health and wellbeing through guided exposure to novel situations, including trained therapy staff assisting with both the physical demands and the mental/emotional processing involved in the treatment. The novel experiences used as a catalyst can be truly physically demanding out in the wild (e.g., kayaking, backpacking) or other times more about the mindset of connecting with nature while engaging in something less intense (e.g., gardening, mindfulness). This is a varied sub-discipline of mental health care, sometimes given numerous labels including “Therapeutic Adventure,” “Wilderness Treatment,” “Experiential Education,” “Outdoor Nature Therapy,” “Forest School,” “Ecotherapy,” “Therapeutic Boarding School,” and others (although it is worth noting that each of those specific labels does mean different things, sometimes with significant uniqueness to the others). The field is several decades old, but also relatively loose in its organization, and hence one can find many different iterations of similar forms of work. According to the Association for Experiential Education, the overarching key values are: global community, adventure and challenge, reflective leadership, social justice, nature, and creative play. To get an even more detailed sense of what competent work in Adventure Therapy entails, check out the AEE Ethical Guidelines.
Adventure Therapists are people who are interested in the intersections of mental health care and the therapeutic effects of nature, guided experiences, and facing challenges. Their unifying philosophy is one which values immersive experiences, teamwork, communication, and bolstering self-efficacy through reflection on their response to the experiential activity. They often have a specialty activity adventure interest (e.g., hiking, biking) and may have a passion for specific client populations (e.g., teens struggling with delinquency or drug addiction, children with behavioral regulation difficulties, adults with mood- or anxiety-related disorders, folks with complicated trauma histories), but their interests may also be more varied. Adventure Therapy may be a great fit for someone driven to work in the mental health field who is open to new experiences, loves the outdoors, and values the idea of taking action with their clients to produce change! These therapists are people who ‘get in the trenches’ alongside their clients.
Adventure Therapists work in a variety of settings, many of which (but not all) are literally outdoors and in the wild! Sometimes their work occurs at a center of some kind, featuring various obstacles or challenges (e.g., high ropes course, climbing apparatus, water features, ski slopes) and other times they may simply head out to a remote area of nature and set up camp in the woodlands, snowy mountainous regions, or desert areas. There is often an office where the care is coordinated, payment is handled, and referrals are collected, but the actual mental health treatment may only rarely take place indoors at the physical office and is instead mostly outside. That said, while the origins of this field predominantly involved wilderness expeditions, there are now developments in clinical practice occurring in outpatient offices. There is also wide variation in the time-commitment of any given excursion, with some spanning only a few days and others involving months at a time out in the field. Here are some ideas from the APA on places to work and learn more.
Because the field of Adventure Therapy is not yet (at the time of writing) a state-sanctioned mental health care profession, and because there does not exist a specific licensure or board-certification process, the pathways to becoming an Adventure Therapist are varied. In some situations, one might be able to secure a position with a wilderness therapy center having only a Bachelor’s degree (e.g., BA in Psychology or BSW in Social Work), and there may even be opportunities at the Associate’s or High School Degree level. However, in order to provide treatment which one could appropriately label as “psychotherapy” or “counseling” in an adventure context, one would need the appropriate education and licensure of a regulated mental health specialty (e.g., Social Work, Counseling, Clinical Psychology) which would often require a minimum of a Master’s degree. There does also exist a credential called Certified Clinical Adventure Therapist (CCAT) and an AEE Accreditation for adventure/outdoor behavioral healthcare programs, both of which would be important for aspiring Adventure Therapists to review and pursue (individuals can be certified, while work sites can be accredited). It may also be worth noting that although uncommon, there are university curricula available on the topic of Adventure Therapy, such as this course titled Adventure/Experiential-Based Social Work Practice at the University of Michigan and this joint master’s program in Social Work and Outdoor Education at the University of New Hampshire.
Adventure Therapists are motivated by their love of nature and outdoor challenges, their passion for mental health, and their valuing the rewarding experience of helping to turn someone’s life around. The individuals and families who select Experiential Education as their route to healing are often in a place of severe struggle and suffering–so to see them improve and rebuild can be extremely gratifying. And it’s not all just about feel-good anecdotes, there is a growing scholarly base of empirical evidence for the efficacy of wilderness treatments for various mental health issues, as well as ways to bring the adventure mentality to routine in-office treatment sessions! While leveraging the power of nature through immersive retreats and outdoor excursions are the historical origins of this work, recent developments in the field have brought this approach into more typical community-based clinical practice as well–and part of the excitement for Adventure Therapists is the ability to contribute to the organization and development of this field in its early stages. Perhaps most central to the motivation for this career is that Adventure Therapists adopt a mindset of growth and work alongside their clients in challenging contexts to endeavor toward self-actualization.
Relevant National Organizations
National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs
The Association for Experiential Education
Therapeutic Adventure Professional Group (TAPG)
Facebook Group for TAPG
Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council