The idea that being active can help people recover from psychological problems
is not new. It dates back to the days of ancient Greece. But the field of
adventure therapy is new. It started only two decades ago. And it continues
to search for an identity.
Christian Itin is the former chair of the Therapeutic Adventure Professional
Group. He says true adventure therapy is more than just adding adventure to
He says it is a new form of therapy that blends and combines adventure
experiences with psychotherapy. Its goal is to help patients learn something
about themselves that will help them in their recovery. This is done through
strenuous and stressful activities like rock climbing.
"And the rock face is a sort of metaphor for the obstacles they have to
get through," says Conrad Cone. He runs a company that offers adventure-based
Adventure therapists work with a wide range of patients. Some patients
are suffering from depression or substance abuse. Patients may also be recovering
victims of abuse. Adventure therapists may also work with former inmates.
They work in private practices, in psychiatric hospitals, for government-run
social services and for outdoor schools that offer adventure-based therapy
Working hours for adventure therapists vary significantly. "It is definitely
not 9 to 5," says Cone. Weekend work is common, and they may spend long periods
of time away from home.
"It could be seven days, it could be two days a week," says Cone. "It really
depends on what the clients want."
Work can also be seasonal. A lot of adventure therapy programs cater to
troubled youth. So most of them take place during the summer when school is
out. But the number of programs running year-round is increasing. Adventure
therapists also travel a lot in their work.
Physical strength and fitness are key requirements for adventure therapists.
So are outdoor and wilderness skills. They must know what to do in medical
emergencies, how to deal with wild animals, and how to handle other unforeseen
natural events like forest fires.
"You can't really do adventure-based therapy [indoors]," says Cone jokingly.
Adventure therapists must also be safety-conscious, and not just when they
lead patients on a backcountry trip. They often work with people with histories
of criminal and violent behavior. A wrong word or a wrong look can touch off
a situation that may endanger the safety of all.
Shelly Ramsey is an adventure therapist in Texas. One day, she led a group
of high school students who were convicted criminals to a rope course. The
group included two rival gang members. A fight soon broke out and Ramsey and
others had to physically step in.
This incident also illustrates the emotionally charged environment in which
adventure therapists work. So they must be flexible and react to situations
quickly. A good sense of humor also helps.
"You should have a good sense of humor because you are dealing with people
who have had a pretty jagged and traumatic past," says Cone.
The number of adventure therapists in North America is not known. Itin
estimates there are about 1,500 to 2,000 in the U.S. and Canada.