OPINION: Abusive wilderness therapy camps must be shut down
February 14, 2023
Imagine being asleep in your bed, just as you are every night when masked figures enter your room and forcefully take you from your bed. You are whisked away from your life, and transported to the middle of nowhere: completely cut off from any sense of reality you once knew. Many would classify this as kidnapping and abduction however, thousands of teens each year deemed troubled are sent to live in the woods at wilderness therapy camps.
Many of these camps mask their abusive practices by using phrases like ‘healing through the power of nature’ and trick many families into thinking their money will bring back a renewed teen rid of their mental health issues when in fact, they do quite the opposite.
According to an interview with TheGuardian.com, teenager Rowan Bissette was one of the abused teens sent to WinGate Wilderness Therapy in Utah. Throughout her experience at WinGate, Rowan was forced to walk from one to 15 miles a day in temperatures higher than 100 degrees. She was denied any food other than two packs of tuna she had to stretch over one week and recalls passing out due to heat exhaustion multiple times.
The scary thing is that on WinGate’s website, they explicitly state that their program is “true adventure therapy. Designed to help families in crisis.” Their founder claims: “We believe WinGate will give your teen or young adult the greatest chance at living a healthy, fulfilled life. I promise they will be loved and guided during their stay here… it is our mission and purpose to help them.” This supposed nurturing and beneficial experience only consisted of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse for Bissette, and sadly for many, this facade presented by WinGate will be the reason hundreds are subjected to the same treatment.
This supposed nurturing and beneficial experience only consisted of sexual, emotional and physical abuse — and sadly, for many, this facade will be the reason hundreds are subjected to the same treatment.
Unfortunately, across America, between 120,000 and 200,000 kids are sent to live in these wilderness camps, most of which have experiences that are equivalent to or even worse than Bissette’s. Many report being physically and verbally abused, starved, overworked and exhausted.
The government has failed to efficiently regulate these camps and has little to no intervention on who is hired to work these facilities. Even scarier, these places work and exist in every corner of the country, including close-to-home, New Jersey and New York.
The New York Times published a disturbing editorial in the last couple of years exposing the traumatic story of Kenneth Rosen, a teen sent to live in a wilderness therapy program in the Adirondack Mountains. His time spent in this facility (which he keeps anonymous) became a traumatic experience as he was ordered to take intense amounts of wrongly prescribed medication, and was convinced he deserved it.
“I was made to answer questions about my life and emotions until I was told I got them right, framing things in a way that the program and therapists felt more accurately told a story about my deviance that I then internalized,” Rosen said.
Despite what Rosen endured at this facility, the real emotional trauma sprouted from the false propaganda advertised by the facility, convincing his parents this would’ve been a beneficial experience.
It is simply unacceptable that as a society, when the truth comes out about wilderness therapy camps we still seem to tolerate their existence. If everyone comes together to extinguish these places we can not only end PTSD and abuse for many, but we can resort to healthier ways for teens to cope with mental health issues.