MST vs. Wilderness Programs

MST vs. Wilderness Programs
Many of us know firsthand the power of place in shaping our thoughts, our emotions, our sense of self and of the world. This influence can be a helpful reminder to parents or guardians who are concerned about the destructive behaviors of their youth---or to those who would like to simply guide their child toward greater confidence, self-realization and fulfillment. There are two therapeutic programs that offer experiences founded upon an understanding of environmental influence. Discerning between the two drastically different approaches can help determine which therapy may be more appropriate for your youth's situation.

Multisystemic Therapy

Founded in 1970, multisystemic therapy provides a preventative intervention for youth whose behavior places them at risk of incarceration. Lasting an average of four months, this treatment is provided to youth in the very setting where they exhibit negative patterns of behavior. The treatment involves close observation and involvement of a therapist who is available around the clock. In conjunction with observing negative patterns and systems in the patient's setting---from his/her peers, school or family---the therapist works to establish protective factors by cultivating positive relationships and strengthening resources in the patient's environment; for example, initiating communication between the patient's parents and educators. The therapist also engages patients in cognitive behavior therapy and often engages the family in pragmatic therapy. The ultimate goal is to provide patients, as well as their families, with the resources needed to sustain positive patterns of behavior that will last after the intervention is over. Mulsystemic therapy is provided by agencies throughout the U.S. and is funded by a variety of state programs.

Wilderness Therapy Programs

Wilderness therapy programs offer youth an opportunity for personal growth and the development of life skills. While most participants are not considered at risk, this experience can be valuable for at-risk youth as well, although willingness and personal commitment are essential for a fruitful experience. Programs vary in their emphasis; while some cater to self-motivated youth desiring challenge and growth, others seek to provide an opportunity to youth struggling with more serious antisocial behaviors. While facing the challenges of nature, youth practice decision-making, problem-solving, leadership and communications skills. Participants can develop relationships with positive role models and achieve greater self-insight through therapy and solitude. Wilderness programs vary in length, from two-week hiking expeditions to yearlong residencies. Opportunities abound in the U.S. and abroad. While such adventures can cost several thousand dollars, many programs offer financial aid to families in need of assistance.


Multisystemic therapy and wilderness therapy both recognize the powerful influence of environment on behavior. Multsystemic therapy offers a cost-effective treatment alternative to punishment-based models for antisocial behavior. Treatment takes place at ground zero, with an integrative attempt to rewire the patient's environment---from a system that triggers destructive behavior to one that cultivates positive behavior. While the model does not work for everyone, proponents claim a high success rate and an overall benefit to communities that provide such services. Wilderness therapy programs vary greatly, offering a plethora of adventures to youth with diverse backgrounds and personal goals, all with shared commitment to self-realization and growth through challenge.

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