Adventure Therapist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotThe idea that being active can help people recover from psychological problems is not new. It dates back to the days of ancient Greece. But the field of adventure therapy is new. It started only two decades ago. And it continues to search for an identity.

Christian Itin is the former chair of the Therapeutic Adventure Professional Group. He says true adventure therapy is more than just adding adventure to psychotherapy programs.

He says it is a new form of therapy that blends and combines adventure experiences with psychotherapy. Its goal is to help patients learn something about themselves that will help them in their recovery. This is done through strenuous and stressful activities like rock climbing.

"And the rock face is a sort of metaphor for the obstacles they have to get through," says Conrad Cone. He runs a company that offers adventure-based therapy programs.

dotAdventure therapists work with a wide range of patients. Some patients are suffering from depression or substance abuse. Patients may also be recovering victims of abuse. Adventure therapists may also work with former inmates.

They work in private practices, in psychiatric hospitals, for government-run social services and for outdoor schools that offer adventure-based therapy programs.

dotWorking hours for adventure therapists vary significantly. "It is definitely not 9 to 5," says Cone. Weekend work is common, and they may spend long periods of time away from home.

"It could be seven days, it could be two days a week," says Cone. "It really depends on what the clients want."

dotWork can also be seasonal. A lot of adventure therapy programs cater to troubled youth. So most of them take place during the summer when school is out. But the number of programs running year-round is increasing. Adventure therapists also travel a lot in their work.

dotPhysical strength and fitness are key requirements for adventure therapists. So are outdoor and wilderness skills. They must know what to do in medical emergencies, how to deal with wild animals, and how to handle other unforeseen natural events like forest fires.

"You can't really do adventure-based therapy [indoors]," says Cone jokingly.

dotAdventure therapists must also be safety-conscious, and not just when they lead patients on a backcountry trip. They often work with people with histories of criminal and violent behavior. A wrong word or a wrong look can touch off a situation that may endanger the safety of all.

Shelly Ramsey is an adventure therapist in Texas. One day, she led a group of high school students who were convicted criminals to a rope course. The group included two rival gang members. A fight soon broke out and Ramsey and others had to physically step in.

This incident also illustrates the emotionally charged environment in which adventure therapists work. So they must be flexible and react to situations quickly. A good sense of humor also helps.

"You should have a good sense of humor because you are dealing with people who have had a pretty jagged and traumatic past," says Cone.

dotThe number of adventure therapists in North America is not known. Itin estimates there are about 1,500 to 2,000 in the U.S. and Canada.

At a Glance

Help people deal with their problems through physical activity

  • One source estimates there are 1,500 to 2,000 adventure therapists in North America
  • This kind of therapy can help people suffering from depression or substance abuse, for instance
  • Advanced degrees in psychology, social work or counseling will teach you the necessary clinical skills