Growing and Healing in the Great Outdoors
“We don’t need a classroom; the outdoors is our classroom.”
A growing body of research is showing that outdoor behavioral healthcare, an emerging mental health intervention that utilizes outdoor activities, adventure-based group work and wilderness expeditions in combination with individual, group and family therapy to address clients’ treatment and wellness needs, can be a highly effective tool for youth and families struggling with mental health, substance abuse and family conflict. Dr. Christine Norton has spent 20 years working in adventure therapy, teaching and conducting research to advance the field of outdoor behavioral healthcare.
Norton began her career in outdoor therapy at the Salesmanship Club Youth Camp, the very first therapeutic wilderness camp program in the country. Originally designed for young men from traumatic backgrounds, by the time Norton arrived the program was coed and had adopted a model of family therapy coupled with extended stays at a residential therapeutic wilderness camp. Norton worked specifically with groups of girls around the age of 13. “Of the kids that I worked with,” she recalls, “all of them had some kind of trauma, a lot of them were coming from families with substance abuse backgrounds, and most of the kids did have some mental health diagnosis — whether that was depression or anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder — so it was a really tough group of kids. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had. But I never could’ve done that job inside of a residential treatment facility. Being outdoors was what made it sustainable.”
The two common models for outdoor adventure therapy are community-based and wilderness-based. Community-based adventure therapy programs include activities such as hiking, paddling, geocaching, rock climbing and ropes courses in concert with traditional individual, family and group therapy sessions. Wilderness-based adventure therapy programs use a combined basecamp/expedition model in which clients live, cook and sleep outside at a backcountry basecamp three days a week, doing activities such as backpacking, canyoneering, mountain biking and more. When they are at basecamp, the clients meet with licensed mental health professionals who come out into the field for several days to facilitate individual and group therapy.
Norton became convinced, over her two years working with young people at the Salesmanship Club Youth Camp (now the Momentous Institute), that in order to better serve the community she would need more clinical training and a broader skill set. “I wanted to find a dual-degree program in social work and outdoor education. I thought ‘there has to be some way of harnessing this outdoor experience, that I see as being inherently therapeutic for these kids,’ but there was nothing at that time that existed. So, I went and did two master’s degrees, one in social work at the University of Chicago and one in outdoor experiential education at Minnesota State University.”
Today, there is a nationally recognized dual-degree program in social work and outdoor education at the University of New Hampshire. UNH now houses the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center, dedicated to performing comprehensive research and providing insight to the field; Norton is one of seven research scientists who are affiliated with the center and working at universities across the country. Her experience and education have positioned her as a national leader in this emerging field. She also helped launch Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success (FACES) at Texas State, an organization providing support to foster care youth who attend the university. She is the foster care liaison officer to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and is the founder of the Foster Care Adventure Therapy Network, an international group of programs and practitioners who utilize adventure therapy with current and former foster care youth and young adults.
Her current research studies the impact of adventure-based group work with former foster youth, looking at social connectedness and trauma recovery. For another project she is collecting data and looking at the impact of adventure therapy on the development of children growing up in public housing. She is also working to train the next generation of adventure therapy professionals by teaching an interdisciplinary adventure therapy elective for grad students, as are her colleagues at other universities. Norton was also a Fulbright Senior Scholar in the spring of 2017, and taught adventure therapy at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, Taiwan.
The work is challenging — Norton is combining research, education and clinical practice to build a body of knowledge that will form a strong foundation for therapeutic success. “There are so many variables at play,” she explains. “From a research perspective, there’s the therapeutic relationship that the client builds with the therapist or guide, then you have the group intervention aspect, then you have physical challenge and adventure, as well as just being outdoors in nature.” Norton and her colleagues look at each of these variables individually and in combination and use interdisciplinary methodologies that she believes will, over time, prove the strength of the adventure therapy model to change people’s lives.
Dr. Norton has lived, worked and presented research in over 25 states, including New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado and Texas. She has studied, taught, presented research and led study abroad trips internationally in Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Panama, Hungary, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic, Australia and Taiwan.