Wilderness Adventure Therapy

Outdoor Adventure Therapy and Teen Mental Health

Pure-Life fav icon - Wilderness Adventure Therapy in Costa Rica

Life can be overwhelming and it doesn’t discriminate when challenging our mental health. Adolescents are bombarded with daily distractions, options for a life path, and general life expectations. If you or your teen are feeling lost or struggling with mental health issues, it may be a good idea to take a gap year or gap semester to reset and develop the tools needed to succeed in life. Outdoor adventure therapy – sometimes confused with wilderness therapy – is an exciting way to help build confidence, challenge negative thoughts, address mental health issues, and provide lasting guidance for a healthy and successful life.

First off, a bit of clarification—while “wilderness therapy” has become a popular term, at Pure Life Adventure, our program is not wilderness adventure therapy it is actually “outdoor adventure therapy.”  Pure Life Adventure is an outdoor mental health program that uses an adventure therapy model.

What Is Outdoor Adventure Therapy For Adolescents?

Outdoor adventure therapy is an opportunity to break out of the normal distraction-ridden life we all experience daily. Changing our setting and surroundings is essential in allowing us to break down walls and challenge ourselves. Adventure therapy will provide new experiences that bring physical and mental challenges. These activities include surfing, rappelling, whitewater rafting, and more. Our adventures give our clinical staff a unique look into the individual struggles of each student and allow us to create individualized treatment plans that have been proven successful both here at Pure Life Adventure and in the student’s personal lives at home.

What Makes Pure Life Different

“We really wanted to create a space for someone struggling in their mental health and could benefit from an outdoor therapy experience, but that is not necessarily in crisis or acting out with reckless or aggressive behaviors,” says Andrew Taylor, the founder.  Because we operate in a foreign country and interact with another culture, we require a certain level of stabilization and functioning for our clients.

Pure Life requires all students to be on board before joining the program.  While reluctance or resistance to a new experience is common for anyone dealing with depression and anxiety, we want to make sure clients are informed about their commitment and go to great efforts to make sure they’re informed on all aspects of the program.

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The Pure Life Outdoor Adventure Therapy Model

  • Part of the Association for Experiential Education AEE Accredited. 
  • Front Country Experience—students are not isolated from the outside world, they are interacting with the public and community in Costa Rica at times during their stay.  
  • Adventure Elements to Build Confidence—activities are created to challenge and build up students.
  • On campus 3-Nights a Week—our students are on campus and sleeping in beds three nights a week. Other nights involve excursions and camping experiences.
  • Healthy Foods—our program includes resetting student habits with healthy food and includes student participation in preparing fresh meals. 
  • Access to Showers and the Outdoors—students spend the majority of their time outside, but still have regular access to showers and personal comforts. This isn’t boot camp. 
  • Engaging with High Standards—our program is fun and engaging and we are a mental health program with high standards for safety so that means we’ve got rules and structure to keep everyone physically and emotionally safe.  
  • Collaborative Admissions Process—our Program Director speaks with every student before they commit to joining us in Costa Rica. We use trauma-informed practices in our admissions process and the student has to agree to come without coercion. 

What You Won’t Find at Pure Life Adventure

  • “Traditional Wilderness Therapy ” involves a total immersive backcountry experience, this is also called a nomadic model where the student is completely removed from the community and will not see a building or car for weeks. 
  • Forced or Unexpected Admission for the student. 
  • Punitive practices of any kind. 
  • Aggressive or defiant behaviors within the milieu.
  • Strong addictive behaviors with respect to substance abuse.

What Does An Adventure Therapist Do?

While “adventure therapist” is a common term on the internet, technically, it’s not an accurate term for our team. At Pure Life Adventure, our licensed therapists implement adventure and outdoor activities into treatment plans to help our students.

Our licensed therapists will provide individual therapy and group therapy to our students, using the latest research and data to refine our treatment programs and approach for our adolescent students. Our therapists will evaluate what challenges the students are experiencing and create an individual treatment plan that will continue to be used even after adventure therapy ends.

Our therapists will also include the student’s family in healing and therapy, including on-site visits as needed. Licensed therapists also work very closely with our Field Guides and they go over very detailed objectives with each student in the field each week. This allows us to offer support at every step of the way.

How Does Outdoor Adventure Therapy Work?

Outdoor therapy, or outdoor adventure therapy, works because being immersed in nature is good for our overall mental health. There are many positive benefits that have been identified by spending time outdoors, the sights, sounds, and smells all help our brain chemistry and reduce stress levels, so much so that doctors are recommending their patients spend time in nature.

Another main benefit of adventure therapy is getting the student out of their day-to-day routine and current patterns. We call this a “novel environment,” and it is effective coupled with therapy in reprogramming our neural pathways. That is why, while not required, our program works well for those taking a gap year. Instead of just taking a gap year to travel, students get the opportunity to prepare themselves for the rest of their lives while still being able to immerse themselves in another culture.

Cultural immersion is another form of novel environment making Pure Life Adventure a unique program within the field of practice. While experiencing new skills and challenges in nature, our clinically informed field staff can evaluate each student individually and use hands-on, strengths-based, student-integrated models where our participants will quickly learn healthy coping strategies. 

Along with these strategies, our goal is to teach behavioral and emotional regulation skills, leadership skills, and life skills that will help them continue on a successful life path even after the gap year program has ended. Those who choose adventure therapy will be immersed in the local Costa Rican community. Our group will stay with a host family and engage in local chores while renewing our mental and physical health with an organic diet, meditation, and physical exercise. We will work with therapists individually and in groups while also including family members as needed.

“Immersing ourselves into new environments and challenging ourselves is good for our mental health.  Within a few weeks I always see a difference in our students because their countenance changes, I think just being outdoors all the time plays a huge part in that” – Andrew Taylor

How Effective Is Outdoor Adventure Therapy?

Our community is committed to outcomes research in collaboration with the AEE . The outcomes are overwhelmingly positive. Adventure therapy is unique and highly effective for a variety of reasons. One of the main benefits of adventure therapy is removing the student from daily tasks of life that may be overwhelming them and allowing them the freedom to address other critical needs that may get overlooked.

Our students speak highly of their outdoor adventure therapy experiences! If you’re curious if adventure therapy really works, here’s what our students have to say.

“By learning to accept the physical discomfort of being in the wilderness, I learned how to cope with my emotional discomfort so it would no longer hinder me from living.” Female, 19 years old

“Pure Life literally saved my life! I came into this program depressed and suicidal. I had lost my love for life, my family and friends, and my motivation to move on.  I learned, with the help of my therapist and group, that I can’t stuff my feelings.  I have learned how to push through being physically uncomfortable and not let it affect my attitude.  I don’t know where I would be without coming to Pure Life! Happiness takes hard work… I know that, and have found a reason to work for it.” – Female, 22 years old

“My experience at Pure Life was more than I could have hoped for. The supportive atmosphere and structure of the program combined with the culture and lifestyle of Costa Rica had such a profoundly positive effect on me.  After my time there, I felt more comfortable being myself, a much stronger leader and a more emotionally healthy person.” -Male, 21 years old

You can read more from students and parents here. 

Why are Outdoor Therapy Programs Effective?

In our high-tech, fast-paced “I want it now” society, we tend to get lost in the many distractions that are so freely available to us. Outdoor adventure therapy provides students with the opportunity and challenges of escaping distractions.  The rugged nature of Costa Rica allows students to focus on what is most important in life; living simply and enjoying themselves. 

Outdoor adventure therapy allows students to serve the local community and think outside of themselves.  Students will gain a rich understanding of a very different culture with tasks that they would not normally have a chance to experience, such as harvesting and preparing food, performing daily chores unique to their environment, and a clear and distraction-free setting that allows them to reflect on their own needs versus wants. Outdoor adventure therapy will allow them to reflect on the value of relationships and what they want in daily life and explore and strengthen their core values through simplicity.

Common Mental Health Problems in Teens

There are many different reasons why outdoor adventure therapy is considered. One main focus of outdoor adventure therapy is the healing of overwhelming mental health issues faced every day.  Some of the most common struggles we see in students are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Screening/gaming abuse
  • Executive function deficits
  • Low motivation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Body image struggles
  • Trauma in various forms
  • Learning deficits 
  • Struggles with social situations

All of these mental health struggles and challenges can affect much more than a single task or desire in life. Mental health problems can cause small and large ripple effects through all aspects of one’s life causing us to sometimes not even realize the damage that is being done. Until you can address the core issue, the negative effects of a mental health issue will continue to wage a war against you.

Outdoor adventure therapy works not only to address any mental health issues but to provide a long-term plan that will continue to bring support and positivity to the students’ life far beyond their time in Costa Rica.

What To Look For In An Outdoor Adventure Therapy Program

If you are looking for outdoor adventure therapy for teens or young adults, possibly one they can attend while taking a mental health gap year, there are a few key items to be looking for when selecting your program.

Cultural Immersion

Our outdoor adventure adventure therapy program wants to create a new life experience in every aspect for our students. We want to remove them from what they are used to, overwhelmed with, or comfortable with.  Shaking up their familiar lifestyle provides new avenues of learning and growth.  Cultural immersion will provide students with a brand new perspective on life.

They will help others develop increased empathy and compassion through cultural homestays with local Costa Rican families. Your student will roll up their sleeves and pitch in to assist our local family with chores inside and outside the home. Cultural immersion provides distraction-free experiences they cannot get anywhere else.

Health and Wellness with a Holistic Approach

A  outdoor adventure adventure therapy program should focus on all aspects of health. While we will provide new cultural experiences, we want to ensure students care for their bodies and mind. Health and wellness are a top priority. Students will be engaged in activities such as yoga, fitness classes, equine therapy, and meditation. Self-improvement begins with a healthy routine. When we learn to provide our bodies with nutritious food and regular exercise, our mental health will benefit from those healthy choices.  Students will receive weekly medical check-ups by our on-site nurse and enjoy fresh and organic home-cooked meals to build their bodies back to a healthy state from the inside out.

Pure Life can provide students with the opportunity to earn college credits during their stay in our program. Students can earn up to as many as 18 credits in total. These are general education credits and are highly transferable. Each week students have the opportunity to opt-in on college credit. They will have learning objectives presented and a reflection will be required at the end of the week which will be reviewed with our Academic Director.

READ MORE: College Credit at Pure Life Adventure

Certification and Safety

Pure Life Adventure is AEE accredited. AEE or the Association for Experiential Education is committed to ensuring that outdoor adventure therapy programs are not only operating safely but are also adhering to best practices in therapy and mental health treatment. 

Our goal at Pure Life is to create the safest and most beneficial programming for our students. Our staff is fully trained in our safety and risk assessment processes. We have a risk management committee that includes individuals from outside our organization to help ensure we continue to have the best practices in place for our students. AEE visited Pure Life in Costa Rica to review our facilities, processes, and team before awarding our accreditation to ensure we met their rigorous standards.

New life experiences require new skills and education. Our outdoor adventure therapy program—sometimes mistakenly referred to as wilderness therapy—for adolescents wants to ensure your student is safe and knowledgeable when learning new skills.  With water activities being a core adventure, we will provide students with a swift water rescue certification class (WWR), wilderness first aid certification (WFA), and rope rescue certification (RRO). Safety is critical to our program and we ensure each student is educated and capable during all their outdoor activities.

Family Work and Therapy

Getting our teens to a happy and healthy place in their life isn’t just about the student themselves. Sometimes change and wellness needs to involve the family as a whole.  With our outdoor adventure therapy program, we believe family involvement is an integral component. We understand the struggle and discouragement parents feel. As our therapists work with the adolescents attending our program, we will also work closely with parents to focus on family dynamics and parent coaching every week.

Parents are expected to work just as hard as their teens during their gap year stay at Pure Life. You will have weekly interactions with your child, have the opportunity to participate in virtual weekly parent support groups, and encourage family or sibling visits to Costa Rica when therapeutically appropriate. Family visits include a 2-day schedule that includes outdoor activities with your child, group events, a visit to the Pure Life campus, and a family therapy session.

If you feel Pure Life’s outdoor adventure therapy program could benefit your loved one, reach out to learn more about Pure Life Adventure! Contact us today!

More About Pure Life’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy

Pure Life’s Adventure Therapy 

Benefits of Adventure Therapy for Young Adults

Who Can Benefit From Adventure Therapy? 

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