Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council: Early History

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A number of wilderness programs emerged in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, based on the concept that taking at-risk youth into the wilds could produce good results—in improved behavior, stronger sense of self, and the mitigation of many emotional and mental-health issues.  During this early period of program development, some providers failed to pay proper attention to risk management and the quality of therapeutic care.  This resulted in a series of unfortunate incidents, including several deaths, and led to media coverage that was negative and critical of wilderness therapy.

With this atmosphere as the backdrop, a small group of visionary leaders from a handful of wilderness programs got together, believing it would serve the interests of all to set competitiveness aside and work to establish basic standards around quality of care and managing risk.

In the early summer of 1996, representatives from Anasazi Foundation, Aspen Achievement Academy, Catherine Freer, Redcliff Ascent, and SUWS sat looking at each other around a table in Salt Lake City.  Each attendee quickly came to see that the others were committed to doing good work.  All held strong convictions that wilderness therapy was a powerful and effective approach to treatment.  The mutual conclusion from this seminal gathering was that programs can trust each other and all benefit by working together to advance the field.

Through the next meetings, the group coined the term “outdoor behavioral healthcare” (OBH) to establish common language for the field, and settled on the name Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC).  The name was subsequently shortened to the current Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH Council).

The OBH Council set about establishing a vision and identifying a mission.  Many of the founding agendas focused on the broad areas of managing risk and delivering effective treatment.  Early on, it was clear the Council must do much more than simply make proclamations on the effectiveness of wilderness therapy.  If the Council expected anyone to take its claims seriously, it needed substantiating research.  The realization that conducting and supporting research was perhaps the single most important agenda the Council could pursue. It led to the creation of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative (OBHRC) in 1999, with Dr. Keith Russell as director and primary researcher.  The long-term partnership between the OBH Council and Dr. Russell has resulted in a large body of ground-breaking research on OBH, including outcomes, sustainability of outcomes, beneficial therapeutic factors, and risk incidents. (See www.obhrc.com for publications).

Currently at 17 member programs, the OBH Council continues to add new members who embrace its mission.  The research cooperative, OBHRC, is currently directed by Dr. Michael Gass at the University of New Hampshire.  Dr. Gass works with seven research scientists, all faculty members at the university level, in conducting research directly related to OBH.  Each year in the early fall, the OBH Council presents the Wilderness Therapy Symposium (formerly hosted by Naropa University).  This year’s symposium, the third presented by the OBH Council, will be August 28-30, in Park City, Utah.

From its humble and uncertain beginning, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council has fulfilled its vision to create a community of leading programs working together to advance the field through best practices, effective treatment, and evidence-based research.

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