Researchers are evaluating the effect it can have on troubled young people.

“You can’t fight nature,” says Jo Roberts, chief executive of the Wilderness Foundation, U.K.

“So if it’s chucking it down and the wind is howling and you’re tired, and the only way to get relief from that is to get your tent up, you have to dig deep inside yourself and focus.”

Roberts is leading a project that takes small groups of disruptive and emotionally damaged young people to the wildest and most remote parts of the British Isles. The aim is to help them connect at a profound level with nature in the raw, and, in the process, raise their self-esteem.

“Being in a true wilderness means having to work with things you can’t change,” says Roberts. If someone has anger management issues or a history of violence, it’s often rooted, she says, in a deeply felt frustration with the world. But there’s no point in being angry or frustrated with nature. You just have to get on and solve the problems it throws at you — because if you don’t, you can’t shout, punch or even negotiate away the consequences. Plenty of international research is emerging to show that there are health benefits to spending time in the natural environment, says Roberts. Taking this a step further, lots of people believe from long experience - in Roberts’s case, years working in South African townships — that lifting disturbed youth out of destructive home environments in stressful urban settings and putting them in the great outdoors can be a catalyst for transformation.

It’s a theory now being put to the test by Essex University’s sport and exercise science department, whose senior researcher, Dr. Jo Barton, is assessing the foundation’s project, TurnAround.

Launched in 2007, it involves working with small groups of troubled teens for nine months. Roberts was unable to get referrals from Essex county council, but the local youth offending team decided to offer the opportunity to some of their most problematic clients, and nine young people were referred.

The first stage is a fully supported wilderness trail to Scotland, accompanied by a psychologist, outdoor experts and volunteer mentors from the local community. This is followed by monthly group activities and weekly one-to-one sessions. It ends with a five-day sailing trip, during which the young people act as the crew. Barton has accompanied the two cohorts who have so far completed the nine-month programme on their wilderness and sailing experiences, and also meets up with them at the monthly sessions.

“The first thing that hits them is the complete shock of no shops and no houses and no buildings. They find it hard to believe that anywhere can simply have nothing in it,” she says.

The study she’s carrying out requires her to measure each individual’s levels of self-esteem, mood patterns and feelings of connectedness to nature over a three-year period. But couldn’t her ongoing participation in the wilderness activities affect the independence of her research, particularly as it’s obvious what results the foundation would like to see?

First, says Barton, it would actually be impossible to embark on the data-gathering required without the young people getting to know her. “We are dealing with people who’ve had horrendous experiences in their childhoods, and some of the behaviours are quite shocking,” she explains.

“I’m not trying to be their friend, but it’s important that they know I’ll muck in and not just stand around with a clipboard.”

Their respect and trust are crucial, she says, because the questionnaires she administers on a monthly basis, and before and after each expedition, are worth nothing if the young people aren’t willing to be honest.

She is also reliant, she explains, on the quality of the relationship she builds with each young person in order to retain contact with them throughout the three years.

“My own personal view is that these things are excellent for you, but I wouldn’t let that influence my research,” she says.

“We incorporate a selection of standardised, internationally recognised instruments, and then put together a composite questionnaire. I re-emphasise to them that there’s no right or wrong answer and that I simply value their opinion. And with young people, you’ll tend to find that they’re much more honest than adults.”

Barton is measuring variations in self-esteem, mood and feelings of connectedness to nature. Qualitative data is also gathered through a series of semi-structured, open-ended questions.

Given the situations of the young people, particularly those in the first group, who were older, homeless or living in foyers and going cold turkey from drug and alcohol habits, it’s hardly surprising that scores were low on all states being measured before their first wilderness trail. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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