SUWS, which originally stood for the School of Urban and Wilderness Survival, was founded in 1981 by L. Jay Mitchell, a Seattle attorney who felt that traditional therapeutic interventions weren't working for children in the juvenile justice system. He developed a survival-based program based on a wilderness course that had been taught to Brigham Young University students on academic probation. With a partner, Mitchell brought the program to the southern Idaho desert.
The camp did not involve much traditional counseling. Instead, it was the primitive living experience itself that was to provide the healing. Students were given very little food and supplies. Their backpack was their gear wrapped in a blanket. They foraged off the land for additional food.
In 1988, SUWS bought the land near Gooding, ID, which still serves as its base. It operates out of surrounding BLM land for its hikes.
In 1992, the camp re-evaluated its primitive living model. The focus of the program was re-directed to a search and rescue metaphor. The camp moved more to a therapeutic modality as well, with group and individual counseling. Additional emphasis was placed on student safety, with more clothing and supplies being provided and more training for staff. Today. SUWS is owned by Aspen Education Group, which runs wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools around the country.
Today, SUWS operates both youth and adolescent programs. The adolescent program, featured in "Desert Therapy", takes groups of seven children and two instructors into the desert for 20 days. The students are all issued the same clothing and must give up their jewelry and all other personal items with the exception of medicine. For their stay, the camp charges between $7-8,000. Most of the children are from out of state, and many are brought to Idaho by escorts, often raising the total cost of the intervention to nearly $10,000.
Hear an expert talk about the costs of outdoor programs.
Hear a SUWS staffer talk about what kind of children the program accepts.
Building on the search and rescue theme, the first week the children must learn how to "rescue" themselves, learning basic survival skills such as building fires without matches. The second week is the "family phase," in which students all take different roles in their new "family," helping each other and learning to depend on one another. The ropes course is the culmination of that week.
In the third week, the group becomes a search and rescue team. They learn first aid techniques, and then are tested with a fake search and rescue call. The situation is not an actual accident, but students do not know that. The search and rescue team is also asked to occasionally help real campers who have run away.
Program directors consider SUWS to be very different from so-called "boot camps," which lean toward a more militaristic approach with children.Hear a SUWS staffer talk about the program's philosophy.
Hear an expert talk about the difference between therapeutic outdoor program and boot camps.
Hear the director of SUWS talk about how to choose a therapeutic outdoor program.
SUWS is part of a large and growing industry that has increasingly come under scrutiny by state and federal regulators. As a result, several of the camps have formed a consortia to develop standards for care.
Hear an expert talk about the need for standards.
Hear a SUWS staffer talk about the camp's position on standards.
Hear the director of SUWS talk about the issue of safety.
Outdoor therapy programs are not for all children. Dr. Keith Russell, of the Wilderness Research Center at the University of Idaho, has studied programs and says that certain types of children, including those who are severely depressed, violent, anorexic, or very young will not do well. But a new nationwide report authored by Russell indicted that 83% of parents who put their children in outdoor therapeutic programs felt their children's symptoms had improved. Read Dr. Russell's reports.
Hear a SUWS staffer talk about the importance of the outdoors in helping a troubled child.
Much of the potential success of programs like SUWS lies in the quality of aftercare the child receives after leaving. Many of the children go immediately to therapeutic boarding schools. But even for those who don't, parents must become actively involved in their children's treatment. As Sue Crowell, director of SUWS says, "SUWS is really only as powerful as the next step."
Hear an expert talk about the importance of aftercare.
Hear the director of SUWS talk about aftercare.