Adventure Therapy

17th October 2023

Page based on the book:
Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice
by Michael A. A. Gass, H.L. Gillis, Keith C. Russell
Book Review with additional insights

Professor James Neill of the University of Australia defines adventure therapy as "the use of adventure-based activities and/or adventure-based theory to provide people with emotional and/or behavioral problems with experiences which lead to positive change in their lives."

Priest and Gass defined adventure therapy in 1997 as "programming aimed at changing [specified] dysfunctional behavior patterns, using adventure experiences as forms of habilitation and rehabilitation." Another definitions states that it is "any adventure experience with diagnosed clients or reporting a specified therapeutic outcome."

Outward Bound's program for at-risk youth is at the heart of the history of Adventure Therapy. Summer, 2007
Photo: Carolina Center for Public Service

Michael Gass and his colleagues, H.L. "Lee" L. "Lee" Gillis (Author) and Keith C. C. Russell, in the book, Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, provide an authoritative in-depth analysis of the subject from decades of combined experience and research in the field.

Gass, Gillis, and Russell do not present a glamorized view of the subject, and without bias, provide insights and examples of the many positive aspects of adventure therapy as well as the possible dangers, especially when conducted by poorly-trained instructors.

Challenged youth benefit most from adventure therapy, and this field is only now becoming developed and structured enough to provide a consistently positive experience for youth.

Detailed History and Development of Adventure Therapy

We are likely most familiar with Outdoor Bound, which helped stabilize the field of adventure therapy, providing a foundation for spin-offs and a multitude of other similarly oriented groups and organizations. This book discusses the history and development of adventure therapy from the 1800s through the present.

Challenged youth, in the context of adventure therapy, include those in trouble with the law, drug and alcohol abuse, those who have experienced trauma in one form or another, or those who are having difficulty socially integrating (not a complete list but a framework). Adults can also benefit from AT, including those in the prison population.

The authors provide a detailed history of the development of adventure therapy (AT), discuss in-depth the history and structure of such well-known organizations like Outward Bound, details the path of the organizations that followed and preceded, and the roots of which go back to the 1800s in Upstate New York and New England.

Possible Dangers and Shortcomings of Adventure Therapy

The fact that AT is an actual adventure lets us know that there is physical exertion involved, as well as brushes with physical danger in leaving the conveniences of home, with, to various degrees, wilderness experiences. Some of the benefits of such experiences are in building self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as helping youths develop a sense of camaraderie with companions in the spirit of cooperation and support, working towards a common goal, and helping each other to reach that goal.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, there have been numerous deaths from dehydration, boating accidents, heart attacks, as well as controversies with some AT organizations concerning the inadequate training of staff, which may have contributed to deaths.

Additionally, there is one AT school of thought that takes an "in-your-face," marine boot-camp approach, and not everyone agrees that this is in the best interest of adolescent clients, most of whom are trying to gain a better footing on serious problems. Also of note is an incident wherein some leaders of one camp (only one to speak of in the history of AT) were notoriously guilty of sexual abuse of numerous clients.

Style and purpose of Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice

Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice is in-depth, well-researched, modest rather than boastful, informative, and honest. Most organizations and a wide array of literature associated with the AT movement are given consideration.

Like most Routledge-published psychology books, Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice is primarily directed towards professionals, those in AT, those who might wish to implement some form of AT in their therapy, mental health professionals, and educators, including mainstream public school administrators who have implemented or may desire to implement forms of adventure therapy in their field trip curriculum.

While many adventure therapy courses span several weeks, a month, or even a complete summer, AT can be implemented on a one-day occasional field trip itinerary as well, which proves to be one effective way of helping inner-city teens, such as in Newark, NJ, who might not have much opportunity to get out of the city. Newark, NJ inner-city youth have responded wonderfully to AT programs through the public school system.

Adventure Therapy as Self-Help for the Family

While the book is geared towards professionals, parents can also benefit from reading it, and there is much information to glean in a practical way as to particular mainstream organizations that offer AT services that their teens might benefit from.

Some others who might consider researching adventure therapy are administrators and educators involved in alternative education schools, residential programs, and substance-abuse counseling programs.

Additionally, the information presented here can be implemented as a self-help or self-family-help strategy based on the AT model. What child or teen wouldn't benefit from a weekend camping, canoeing the Delaware Water Gap rapids, or hiking in some local park?

Instead of Disney World, why not raft or hike the Grand Canyon? If you are able to travel to Europe, hike the hut system in Austria for a week. These adventurous outings build character, stamina, and are physically and mentally refreshing; they build self-esteem, and are known stress-busters. Your budget can be as large or small as you want it to be. (Adventure Therapy as self-help was not necessarily developed in Gass's book, but ties in with one of the purposes of this website).

Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice (off-site link) is highly recommended for professionals, including educators, both administrators and teachers, some parents, and as a library book. Libraries should considering obtaining this valuable, well-researched book for their readers.