Wilderness Therapy Step-Down Programs at OPI

October 19, 2015

wilderness step down OPIWilderness Therapies and the Hero’s Journey as Metaphors for Change

“I can See! I can See!” said Jumping Mouse over again and again. A Blurry Shape Came toward Jumping Mouse. Jumping Mouse Squinted hard but the Shape Remained a Blur. “Hello, Brother,” a Voice said. “Do you Want some Medicine?” “Some Medicine for me?” asked Jumping Mouse. “Yes! Yes!” “Then Crouch down as Low as you Can,” the Voice said, “and Jump as High as you Can.”

Jumping Mouse did as he was Instructed. He Crouched as Low as he Could and Jumped! The Wind Caught him and Carried him Higher.” “Do not be Afraid,” the Voice called to him. “Hang on to the Wind and Trust!”

Jumping Mouse did. He Closed his Eyes and Hung on to the Wind and it Carried Higher and Higher. Jumping Mouse Opened his Eyes and they were Clear, and the Higher he Went the Clearer they Became. Jumping Mouse Saw his Old Friend upon a Lily Pad on the Beautiful Medicine Lake. It was the Frog.

“You have a New Name,” Called the Frog. “You are Eagle!”

The Story of Jumping Mouse – Native American Lore


If your child recently completed a Wilderness Therapy Program, you might be noticing some positive changes in his or her outlook and behaviors. Let’s take a closer look at why this transformation likely took place and next steps for continued progress toward independent living. OPI understands and integrates the metaphor of the wilderness experience into our programs, enabling us to partner with your child and family in continuing the journey and supporting the growth of your young adult toward independence.

Wilderness Therapy programs utilize wilderness expeditions for the purpose of therapeutic intervention in addressing a wide array of maladaptive behaviors such as drug use/abuse, conduct disorders, and other social issues that may benefit “through contemplative practice and the experiential outdoor classroom.” At the root of the wilderness experience, the individual is challenged to build self-reliance and create resilience through utilizing intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy. The individual is also presented with immediate natural consequences for negative choices or behaviors given the extremes of the outdoors and the challenges inherently in place. Finding an appropriate transitional program, such as OPI, to continue the journey and support the individual as he/she begins to live life from a new point of view, with new skills sets, then becomes imperative.

Nature and the environs can be both motivator and judge. As a catalyst for change, nature then becomes the vehicle for those with low self-esteem or other maladaptive images of self. When caught in the endless cycle of negative self-talk “I’m no good,” “I don’t have any future,” “Why even try?,” and the myriad of negative self-talk that inhabits “the cave of a thousand voices,”(to quote Joseph Campbell), the individual is forced to explore these core beliefs head on. Through actively participating in the daily process of being in the wilderness and the constant obstacles and challenges incurred, the individual finds the inner strength and confidence to “do it” and begins to build a more positive outlook of self and experience. Those thought patterns that once were part of “I can’t” talk and mind set become reframed messages of resilience and “I CAN.”

This is also a time for deep personal reflection through group process work, journaling, and individual therapy. With the distractions from home, “the problem,” or home environment, eliminated, the individual is allowed to focus more intently on themselves and the core issues at hand. Difficulty with authority, inability to get along with peers, and the cycles of cravings from drug use all continue to present themselves away from the individual’s home setting. Wilderness then becomes the metaphor for these issues to be dealt with in the here and now. An issue of oppositional defiance gets processed in the moment with field staff and therapist. Anti-social thoughts and behaviors get directly addressed in the group milieu with other members of the “tribe” able to discuss the negative behaviors and impact on others. Staff again has the opportunity to use this interruption as an intervention and catalyst for change. It is a time of deep personal reflection and from this, the metaphor for the hero’s journey evolves.

“You enter the forest at the darkest point,
where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.
You are not then on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way,
you are not going to realize your potential.”
Joseph Campbell


As the participant struggles to acclimate in the outdoor environment, experiential learning and metaphor become excellent partners in the development of life lessons. Individuals are presented with tasks such as: building their own shelter, cooking over an open fire, rock climbing, daily backpacking over a variety of terrains and elevations, personal hygiene in the wilderness milieu, finding suitable water sources, and learning first aid and self care with the challenges of living 24/7 in the outdoors. As metaphor continues to be experienced, these lessons are learned on a deeper level. Participants struggling with core family issues at home may experience the same hegemony in the backcountry with field guides and therapists able to redirect the experience, providing a corrective metaphorical experience for the individual.

Joseph Campbell writes in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” about the “Call to Adventure” as one of the phases of the hero’s journey. Summoned by destiny, the hero then embarks on an adventure, with his spiritual center transferred from “society to a zone unknown.” It is the “zone unknown” that parallels the therapeutic process and where change occurs. When the individual is challenged with daily struggles from the environment, the individual experiences the locus of control, in which he has mastered the ability to push through and succeed experiencing a transformative interpersonal change of core beliefs into “I CAN.”

As the individual continues to experience resiliency, Campbell again writes about “The Crossing of the Return Threshold” in where the individual begins to realize that:

“…the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world that we know. And the exploration of that dimension, whether willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero.”

Armed with a new sense of self and purpose, the individual “graduates” from wilderness and begins the assimilation back to society. It is at this point where Transitional Treatment Programs, such as OPI, come into play in continuing the work and metaphor of the individual’s journey.

OPI stresses, among other things, that the individual “have some fun, find some passion.” Whether the individual continues the journey by learning to maintain personal space, cook and shop on their own, return to work or school, or continue their love of the outdoors through the hiking or paddle board clubs, resilience and metaphor continue to be a part of the catalyst for change. These metaphors can be examined at OPI in personal therapy through the lens of strength-based theoretical orientations such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectic Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and others. The ultimate goal then being the ability for the individual to incorporate the lessons learned through the wilderness process, therapy or experiential learning through clubs, school and/or volunteering, and work, and integrating these into a greater sense of self, able to conquer the future trials with a hero’s mentality and resilient point of view.

“The ego is as you think of yourself. You in relation to all the commitments of your life, as you understand them. The self is the whole range of possibilities that you’ve never even thought of. And you’re stuck with your past when you’re stuck with the ego. Because if all you know about yourself is what you found out about yourself, well, that already happened. The self is a whole field of potentialities to come through”.

-Joseph Campbell


To learn more about OPI’s step-down programs for young adults who have completed wilderness therapy, give us a call at 888-814-5985 or submit a Contact Form. We’ll be in touch promptly.

Categories: For Parents