Experiences of adventure therapy: A narrative inquiry

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The purpose of my qualitative inquiry was to explore people’s experiences in adventure therapy. The methodology of narrative inquiry, a method of studying people’s lived experiences, was preferred in order to build knowledge about the storied lives of adventure therapy practitioners and program participants. I conducted semi-structured interviews with an international group of 30 former adventure therapy participants, aged 18 to 30, and 26 adventure therapy practitioners. Participant observation was conducted on adventure therapy programs in Norway, the United States, and Australia to explore the diversity of adventure therapy practice.

Data were organised into patterns of experience, called narrative threads, serving as plot marks to provide comparing and contrasting experiences in adventure therapy. Analysis and interpretation led to resonant threads, or the echoes of meaning emerging from my interpretation of the narratives are presented in the discussion of findings.

Commonalities of adventure therapy practice can include the intentional use of outdoor settings, experiential therapy, and active bodily engagement. My thesis explored how program participants and practitioners perceive psychotherapy interactions in outdoor settings. The time outdoors provided a novel environment for some participants to experience success and mastery, but was one that could also leave them feeling disenchanted.

The varieties of adventure therapy practice forms a discussion about unethical treatment of vulnerable youth and potentially demoralising approaches. For example, participant narratives of wilderness therapy programs in the United States require re- evaluation and a considering of ethical practice. For example, coercion, the use of secure transport services and the common involuntary referral to ongoing residential treatment were common experiences of participants in United States, yet these core ingredients are described little in the available literature.

Given the contribution of therapeutic relationships to psychotherapy outcomes, the literature provides only a general overview of those effects. My inquiry provided opportunities for a thorough examination of these types of engagements in adventure therapy settings, with the findings having the potential to address any gaps in knowledge, and to build better understanding of the links between therapeutic relationships and adventure therapy. For example, not present in the current literature, my findings indicate that positive relationships included authenticity, democracy, and collaboration.

Implications from my inquiry are made for practitioners to privilege the participants’ experiences of the therapeutic relationship, no matter the mode of adventure therapy provided. Adventure therapy literature does not do justice in representing the experiences of participants and level of coercion and inequality they can experience. As practitioners, we should focus on how participants construct meaning throughout an adventure therapy experience and taking their self-determination seriously. My thesis concludes with implications for a research agenda focusing on improved outcomes and a revisiting of ethical practice.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Healy, John, Principal Supervisor
  • Mlcek, Susan, Co-Supervisor
Award date29 Oct 2020
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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