Breaking the Chains: Reducing Self-Harm in Youth and Teenagers Through Wilderness Therapy

Self-harm behaviors are a growing concern worldwide, presenting serious challenges for young people. 

While the root causes of self-harm, or self-injury, can differ extensively, they often stem from interpersonal factors and a wide range of stressors in one’s social and emotional environment. 

Addressing these behaviors effectively often requires a holistic approach that considers not only the individual but also their surrounding relationships and circumstances.

Wilderness therapy emerges as a promising intervention for those struggling with self-harm due to its immersive and experiential nature, which fosters personal growth and self-awareness. 

Teen girl leans against a wall with a far-away expression on her face.

This therapeutic approach can involve various techniques, such as problem-solving activities, healthy physical challenges, and group-based experiences, to build confidence, self-esteem, and leadership skills in a non-traditional setting. Anchored in the healing power of nature, wilderness therapy offers a unique opportunity to simultaneously address mental health challenges and empower individuals to take control of their lives.

Given the complexities of self-harm behaviors, embracing an alternative approach like wilderness therapy can make a significant difference in recovery outcomes. 

As the journey towards reducing self-harm in teens begins, it is essential to remain open-minded and emphasize the importance of interpersonal change, while nurturing the teenagers’s capacity for resilience and self-care.

Understanding Self-Harm Behaviors in Teens

Types of Self-Harm in Teens

Self-harm behaviors can take many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Cutting: Deliberately cutting the skin, usually with a sharp object like a knife or razor blade.
  • Scratching: Repeatedly scratching the skin, often to the point of drawing blood or causing scarring.
  • Burning: Using heat or fire to intentionally inflict pain and injury on the body.
  • Hitting or punching: Striking oneself or an object to cause pain or injury.
  • Picking at skin or wounds: Interfering with the healing process by obsessively picking at scabs or skin irregularities.

These behaviors can range in severity and can be driven by a variety of underlying causes and triggers.

Teen looks out the window of a car with a sad expression on her face.
Students at Trails Carolina engage in therapeutic creative activities.

Causes and Triggers

Self-harm is often a coping mechanism for dealing with painful emotions or distress, as well as managing mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and trauma. Some common triggers and causes include:

  • Loneliness and isolation: Feeling separated from others can lead to emotional pain that self-harm helps to numb or alleviate.
  • Psychological distress: High levels of stress, anxiety, or sadness can trigger self-harm as a means of coping with emotional pain.
  • Low self-esteem: Those who struggle with self-worth may use self-harm as a way to punish themselves or to gain a sense of control. This is an example of self destructive behavior.
  • Anger and frustration: Self-harm can be an outlet for handling intense emotions, turning the anger inward on oneself.
  • Guilt and shame: Individuals may engage in self-harm to cope with feelings of guilt or regret about past events.

Warning Signs and Identification

Recognizing the signs of self-harm is crucial for early intervention and support. Some warning signs include:

  • Unexplained cuts, scratches, or burns on the body, often found on the wrists, legs, or arms.
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants, even in warm weather, to hide injuries.
  • Being secretive or evasive when questioned about injuries or behaviors.
  • Isolation from friends and family, withdrawing from social situations.
  • Possessing sharp objects, such as razor blades or knives, without a clear purpose.

Awareness of these signs and understanding the underlying factors can help identify self-harm behaviors and guide individuals toward healthier coping mechanisms, such as exercise, therapy, or building a support network. Wilderness therapy, in particular, can offer an empowering environment and valuable tools to address and reduce self-harm behaviors.

The Role of Wilderness Therapy in Self-Harm Reduction at Trails Carolina

Five boys of varying height, age, and race walk with their arms over each others shoulders down a trail in a forest.

Wilderness therapy is an alternative treatment method that addresses various mental and health issues such as stress, anxiety, trauma, and behavioral addictions. 

At Trails Carolina, a leader in wilderness therapy, we focus on helping our students foster relationships, develop coping skills, and promote emotional and psychological growth. Through a combination of outdoor activities and mental health professional guidance, students can experience healing in a non-traditional environment.

We encourage and guide our students through the process of processing their emotions so that they can develop healthier ways to cope with these challenges. This is done through individual and group therapy, journaling, problem-solving exercises, and natural horsemanship, creating a supportive and collaborative environment to facilitate personal growth 1.

Nature as a Therapeutic Environment

The natural environment of Western North Carolina plays a significant role in the effectiveness of our wilderness therapy programs at Trails Carolina. Being in nature helps reduce stress, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms, providing a relaxing and soothing atmosphere for individuals struggling with self-harm behaviors 2. By immersing our students in outdoor settings, they are able to disconnect from daily stressors and focus on understanding their triggers and their healing process. Moreover, the unpredictability of nature can serve as a valuable learning tool, providing opportunities for students to adapt and overcome obstacles, such as the desire to self-harm.

In addition to the stress-relieving benefits of nature, which are particularly helpful in managing self-harm behavior,  participating in outdoor activities can enhance self-esteem, resilience, and interpersonal skills. Wilderness therapy also promotes healthy lifestyle habits, such as physical activity and mindfulness practices, which can contribute to a stronger foundation for long-term mental health and a reduction in self-harm 3.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Self-Harming Teens

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Reducing Self-Harm Behaviors

Wilderness therapy offers numerous benefits for individuals struggling with self-harm behaviors.

By immersing students in natural environments, they are removed from daily stressors and triggers, which often contribute to self-harming tendencies. This form of therapy promotes the development of new skills and encourages healthy coping mechanisms, helping students break the cycle of self-harm.

One key benefit of wilderness therapy is the incorporation of the family into the healing process. Family therapy and educational sessions provide a space for open communication, understanding, and support. This incorporation of family helps to promote lasting positive change for students.

Developing Healthy Coping Strategies

As students engage in wilderness therapy activities, they learn to recognize and alter negative thought patterns connected to self-harming impulses. 

This therapy aids in developing positive coping skills to replace self-harm, such as exercise or breathing techniques. For example, hiking or group problem-solving exercises can boost self-esteem and foster effective interpersonal skills.

In wilderness therapy, individuals are encouraged to set and achieve personal goals, enhancing self-confidence and feelings of accomplishment. Furthermore, outdoor activities often involve healthy physical challenges that foster resilience and help release tension without resorting to self-harm. 

The process of setting and achieving challenges ultimately promotes better judgment and decision-making skills.

Lastly, wilderness therapy encourages open communication and emotional expression as students share their experiences and thoughts with peers and professionals. This community-centered approach helps to normalize the discussion around self-harm and offers support for those seeking help. 

By fostering connections with others, students are more likely to reach out for support in the future, such as contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, when faced with strong urges to self-harm.

Integrating Wilderness Therapy with Other Treatments

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Wilderness therapy can be an effective approach to address self-harm in teens, but it can be even more beneficial in reducing self-harm behaviors when integrated with other treatments. This section explores the integration of wilderness therapy with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), support groups, and counseling.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a well-established treatment for individuals suffering from self-injurious behaviors, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It emphasizes the development of coping strategies, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. Integrating wilderness therapy with DBT can provide a unique and natural setting for clients to practice these skills. Nature can serve as a grounding tool, assisting individuals in managing distressing emotions and redirecting impulses to engage in self-harm behaviors, such as cutting with sharp objects, pinching, or biting.

In the outdoors, clients can apply DBT techniques like mindfulness, distress tolerance, and radical acceptance in a supportive environment. For example, engaging in mindfulness and other physical activity during wilderness excursions may reduce the urge to self-harm.

Peer Support Groups

Support groups are another valuable addition to Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy program for students, offering a safe space for individuals to share experiences and feel understood without fear of rejection or judgment.This encourages bonding in the group and fosters an environment of trust and empathy that promotes healthier coping mechanisms.

Counseling for Reducing Self-Harm in Youth

At Trails Carolina, we combine wilderness therapy with individual and family counseling, which offers a comprehensive approach to addressing self-harm behaviors. 

Counseling sessions, provided by licensed mental health counselors, can help identify underlying issues related to non-suicidal self-harm and reveal triggers, allowing for the development of personalized treatment plans.

In an outdoor setting, therapy sessions can take advantage of the therapeutic qualities of nature to facilitate conversations and introspection. For example, activities such as hiking or journaling beside a stream can help clients communicate more openly about their emotions and experiences, helping to reduce incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts.

Incorporating wilderness therapy with other treatments such as DBT, support groups, and counseling can create a holistic and potent approach to addressing and reducing self-harm behaviors. The natural environment, along with these complementary therapies, provides an encouraging and understanding milieu that promotes healing and growth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key components of wilderness therapy for self-harm reduction?

Wilderness therapy is a treatment modality that utilizes expeditions into nature as a means of addressing mental health disorders, including self-harm behaviors. Key components of this therapy include exposure to physical activities, therapeutic group experiences, and individual counseling sessions with trained professionals. Students are also taught coping strategies and skills to build resilience and confidence in overcoming obstacles and managing emotions.

How does wilderness therapy help individuals overcome self-harming behaviors?

One of the main ways wilderness therapy helps individuals reduce self-harm behaviors is by providing a structured and supportive environment that encourages self-reflection, skill development, and confidence building. Through challenging physical activities and problem-solving tasks, individuals learn to face and process negative emotions, which can lead to a reduction in the urge to engage in self-harm. Additionally, nature can have a calming and uplifting effect, promoting mental well-being and a sense of connection with the world around them.

What are the psychological benefits of nature in treating self-harm?

Nature allows individuals to escape the stresses and triggers of everyday life and provides an opportunity to experience a sense of peace and stillness. This can lead to reduced anxiety, improved mood, and increased self-awareness. Furthermore, natural environments can promote mindfulness and help individuals develop coping strategies, ultimately reducing self-harming behaviors.

How do therapists support self-harm recovery during wilderness therapy?

During wilderness therapy, therapists work closely with individuals to help them understand and cope with the underlying issues that contribute to their self-harming habits. This support may include individual counseling sessions, group therapy focused on communication and emotions, educational workshops, and teaching essential coping strategies and skills. Therapists also continually assess and monitor the progress of each individual to ensure the intervention remains appropriate and effective.

What is the recommended duration for a wilderness therapy program on self-harm treatment?

The recommended duration for wilderness therapy programs can vary depending on individual needs and the severity of their self-harm behaviors. Typically, programs last for six to 10 weeks, allowing enough time for students to immerse themselves in the activities, develop new skills, and build resilience. It is essential to work with trained professionals and mental health care providers to determine the appropriate duration for an individual’s specific needs and recovery goals.


  1. Wilderness Therapy
  2. Nature’s Role in Outdoor Therapies: An Umbrella Review – PMC
  3. How wilderness therapy works: an examination of the wilderness therapy …
Avatar of Jeremy Whitworth

Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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