Thanks to an innovative, psychology-driven initiative, a couple of purposeful weeks in the bush is proving an effective form of therapy for at-risk young Australians.
“Australia is in the midst of a devastating mental health crisis,” says Dani Akehurst, operations manager at Human Nature Adventure Therapy. “Many of our most vulnerable young people are suffering from trauma and disadvantage … And self-destructive behaviour and a lack of engagement with school, family, and standard mental health systems leaves them susceptible to a tragic downward spiral. They are being lost to addiction, self-harm, and suicide.”
Bleak as her outlook may seem, Dani isn’t making this stuff up. According to a 2017 report by the Black Dog Institute, one in four young Australians (15-19) are at risk of serious mental illness. The report suggested a range of initiatives – including better mental health prevention programs at schools, alternatives to face-to-face therapy via technology, better support for friends and family – to help combat the issue.
But for Dani and the team at Human Nature Adventure Therapy, there’s a powerful, rejuvenating and strengthening kind of therapy right outside the window: the great outdoors.
Nine years ago, psychologist Andy Hamilton began Recre8, a bush adventure therapy program that took at-risk young people from southern Queensland and northern New South Wales on carefully-crafted expeditions in the region as a form of therapy. In 2015, Andy and a small team established Human Nature Adventure Therapy as a non-profit to deliver the program on a larger scale.
On the expeditions, which take place three times a year (twice for young women, once for young men), participants spend 14 days in the field together with Andy, psychologist Cherie Levy, adolescent counsellor Amie Dreyer and a handful of qualified volunteers.
The aim is to take participants out of their daily circumstances and away from any triggers, develop their trust, give them responsibility, provide new bonds and friendships, help them reveal their potential, and provide professional psychological support throughout. “They’re challenged physically,” says Dani. “They’re carrying backpacks; learning wilderness skills; making fires; preparing and cooking good together; learning how to sail, abseil and canoe; they start the day with yoga, and each participant is given one responsibility for operations for the day.”
One of the things that makes Human Nature Adventure Therapy so effective, adds Dani, is that the counsellors and support staff are put on an even level with the participants, who are referred to the program from a range of local support services. “They’re all going through the same [challenges]. There’s no ‘expert’ and ‘patient’. The combination of bush adventure therapy and intensive holistic care makes it unique, and the learning derived by the young people helps ensure their health and wellbeing for the rest of their lives.”
The benefits of spending time in nature are widely documented and scientifically proven, from improving memory to lowering blood pressure and decreasing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Japan, to help combat the country’s notoriously high suicide rate, even introduced shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) as part of a national health program in the 1980s.
In May 2018, a customer grant from Bank Australia helped Human Nature Adventure Therapy deliver a young women’s sailing program. The program saw 10 at-risk young women aged between 14 and 16 set off for a 14-day adventure that included hiking and camping, and learning to sail around Moreton Bay and Stradbroke Island, with therapeutic activities and round-the-clock counselling provided by the support team.
Of the many benefits of this type of supported, nature-led therapy, Dani notes increased resilience, self-awareness, self-confidence, maturity, improvements in emotional wellbeing, improved relationships and much more besides. “Facilitated to rewrite their narratives, the young women were shown that they have the inner-resources to achieve more than they imagined,” says Dani.
Alex, a past participant of Human Nature Adventure Therapy, says the camp was “life changing” for him. “I wanted to be known as a better person and not to be so shy,” he says. “Being given leadership opportunities helped me feel confident in myself.”
Alex’s foster mother, Annie, is grateful for the opportunity for him to participate in the program, too. “He’d been in foster care since he was five years old,” she explains. “His mum had many kids, and their set up was dysfunctional. I picked him up on the side of the road. He was hungry to change but didn’t know how. His intentions were there, and this program triggered the change he was looking for.”
Even a year after Alex was on camp with Human Nature Adventure Therapy, the benefits and lessons continue to emerge. “They’re powerful but subtle,” says Annie. “He takes responsibility for his life. His behaviour was coming from a place of self-loathing. He was always being told he’d end up in jail. But he learned to value himself, and the program [enabled] him to see that he’s an incredibly worthwhile person. It’s been absolutely life-changing. Alex has stopped struggling and being suicidal. They save kids’ lives.”
The names of participants have been changed to protect identities.