Adventure Therapy as a distinct and separate form of psychotherapy has only been prominent for less than 40 years. Influences from a variety of learning and psychological theories have contributed to the complex theoretical combination within adventure therapy (AT). The underlying philosophy largely refers to experiential education. Existing research in adventure therapy reports positive outcomes in effectively improving self concept and self esteem, help seeking behavior, increased mutual aid, pro-social behavior, trust behavior and more. Even with research reporting positive outcomes it appears that there are many disagreements about the underlying process that creates these positive outcomes.
One definition of adventure therapy:
Adventure (psycho)therapy is an active, experiential approach to group (and family) psychotherapy or counseling:
- utilizing an activity base, (cooperative group games, ropes courses, outdoor pursuits or wilderness expeditions)
- employing real and or perceived (physical and psychological) risk (distress/eustress) as a clinically significant agent to bring about desired change
- making meaning(s) (through insights that are expressed verbally, nonverbally, or unconsciously that lead to behavioral change) from both verbal and nonverbal introductions prior to (e.g., frontloadings) and discussions following (e.g., debriefings) the activity experience
- punctuating isomorphic connection(s) (how the structure of the activity matches the resolution of the problem) that significantly contribute to the transfer of lessons learned into changed behavior (Gillis & Thomsen, 1996)
Effectiveness of Adventure therapy
Even though there are certain arenas that question the theory of adventure therapy, the practice of adventure therapy continues because of numerous reported positive outcomes in adventure therapy research. A study of the effects of adventure therapy on 266 high risk youth in rural areas reported lasting improvement in behavior over a six-month period. Another study on adventure therapy effectiveness reports that adventure therapy is effective because specifically designed activities can bring about specific outcomes.
Adventure therapy is further viewed as effective because of the apparent positive effects in treating developmental issues with juvenile offenders and adolescent offenders with drug abuse and addiction issues. The effectiveness of adventure therapy with offenders with drug abuse and addiction issues in mental health treatment is related to the characteristics present in addicted offenders. They "…(1) need more structure, [and] (2) they work better with an informal, tactile-kinesthetic design….". Adventure therapy as treatment is equally effective for adjudicated youth and other adolescent populations. 62.2% of adolescents who participated in an adventure therapy group are at an advantage for coping with adolescent issues than adolescents that did not. There is a 12.2% improvement in self concept for adolescents who participate in adventure therapy. Adolescents are approximately 30% better off in their ability to cope with mental health issues than those that do not participate in a psychotherapeutic treatment making the implication that adventure therapy effectiveness is comparable to the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic treatment.
The concepts contributing to adventure therapy effectiveness are: increases in self esteem, self concept, self efficacy, self perceptions, problem solving, locus of control, behavioral and cognitive development, decreases in depression, decrease in conduct disordered behaviors, overall positive behavioral changes, improved attitude, and that adventure therapy generates a sense of individual reward. Further aspects that contribute to adventure therapy’s effectiveness are that it: increases group cohesion, aids in diagnosing conduct disorders in adolescents, improves psychosocial related difficulties, is effective in treating drug addicted and juvenile youth, treats sensation seeking behaviors, improves clinical functioning, facilitates connecting participants with their therapist and treatment issues, and increases interpersonal relatedness.
When comparing the reduction in recidivism rates with traditional programs and programs with adventure therapy, programs using adventure therapy have lower recidivism. There is an increases in interpersonal relatedness, which has been describe as the most important factor for improving mental health issues.