Kurt Hahn developed the early basic for so-called outward bound education before the second world. These ideas were picked up by several schools.
In the 1970's the first wilderness therapy programs began to emerge. However they took only volunteers in and while the survival gear was somewhat primitive compared to the equipment at hand here in 2011, most teenagers who entered these programs made it home.
This all changed when the Reagan and Bush administration in the 1980's declared war on drugs and raise the age of alcohol consumption to 21 in the United States. Such a war demanded strict punishment and when the parents discovered that even minor violations of the law could put their children in jail for decades - in some cases even life, a market for alternative private punishment marketed as therapy was pushed in business based on parental fear for the future of their children.
The first wilderness programs where teenagers were forced into entering the program appeared. Then deaths of such teenagers in the wilderness became headlines in such a number that they eventually were something you could read about on page 34. It was an accepted risk because the alternative was claimed to be a life on drugs and as result deaths or life in prison.
One of the first programs of this new type was named Challenger. It was as almost every modern wilderness programs outdoor adventure combined with boot camp mentality. In closed a few years after it opened because a young girl named Kristin Chase died during the program.
One of our volunteers looked the program up on Facebook and found a group of survivors of the program. While some praise the program despite its harshness there are also those who to this day recent all what did take and basically blame their experience for all the suffering they have experienced in life since. What is true? Is it just something you should get over with or should you speaks up against the lack of fairness?
Life goes on but just as people have to endure scars and injuries from traffic accidents it does meant that you should forget all what was wrong. A girl died in the program and only pure luck prevented others from joining her.
Second those who praise the program forget one thing. It is a basic function in the brain which enables them to select the good things and make them forget the bad elements in the program just as rape victims often are able to hide the ordeal and function relatively normal.
But what about the deaths? Wasn't something learned from Challenger?
No, nothing was learned from her tragic death. In the years since the program closed not a single year has been without deaths in residential treatment programs for children. Several of the deaths in wilderness programs have been exactly copies of her unfortunately death - Deaths which for sure could have been avoided if just the tiniest piece of teaching had been learned from her ordeal.
Wilderness therapy is not safe. It doesn't matter what kind of regulations which are introduced. Records show that there will always be the next set of parents who will receive a coffin instead of a cured child.
Taking teenagers out of their comfort zone should be controversial and the very last resort.
2011 brought awareness of the risk and the suffering among teenagers who are being removed from their homes.
2012 should be the year where the use of wilderness therapy for children who are not willingly entering the program should stop.
That is our simple New Year wish.