Researchers in the University of Essex’s Centre for Environment and Society have been working with young offenders from Essex to help them turn their lives around.
Professor Jules Pretty, Jo Barton and Rachel Hine were involved in ‘The TurnAround 2007 Project’, initiated by the Wilderness Foundation UK to help seven vulnerable young people in Chelmsford and mid-Essex. This nine-month project used the power of nature and wilderness experiences a catalyst for change, enabling the young people to re-evaluate their destructive lifestyles and gave them the self assurance to take responsibility for their future.
Senior Research Officer, Jo Barton, explains: ‘The programme consisted of monthly workshops and weekly life coaching but the key element was getting them in touch with nature and away from negative distractions in their usual urban environments.’
‘This involved two wilderness trips – one to the Isle of Mull in Scotland and one sailing on the Thames. The first took place at the beginning of the project and the second at the end. The difference in behaviour was amazing!’
The five day sailing trip was included as sailing is a physical activity that relies on a crew working as a team. Participating in this contributed to an improved self-esteem, enhanced mood and a greater connectedness to nature. However, the biggest contrast to the first Isle of Mull experience was behaviour. After a challenging time on the residential and walking trail programme, only two incidents of refusing to cooperate were observed whilst sailing and there were no incidents of verbal attacks, physical violence or running away. There were minimal arguments and the group functioned cohesively as a team. They also articulated this change themselves on many occasions.
The researchers monitored the young people’s psychological health before and after the two wilderness trips, as well as during the months in between. At the outset behaviour was described as disruptive, disrespectful and undisciplined. However, as the programme progressed, the frequency of negative events reduced, criminal activity and substance abuse declined and the young people displayed less anti-social behaviour.
Findings of the self-reported measures of self-confidence, trust, belonging and connectedness to nature showed that after each wilderness experience, feelings increased and during the months in between levels fell, as participants had less contact with nature. The final value at the end of the project was substantially higher than the initial starting value.
Similarly the biggest improvements in self-esteem scores were seen after participating in the first wilderness trip, before levels fell when participants returned to their usual environments. However, levels never regressed to starting values and from that point forward continued to steadily increase. The final score after the sailing trip was significantly higher than the initial score at the beginning of the project.
Comments from the young people included: ‘I enjoyed being in the outdoors more and had more respect for myself’ and ‘I've realised that there is a lot of things about me that need changing’.
There are approximately 6.7 million people aged 15-24 in England and a disproportionate number of these live in deprived, urban areas where adolescent problem behaviour has steadily increased.
A wide range of research has evidenced key health benefits experienced after spending time in the natural environment and a link between nature and health seems to be emerging. This includes reduced stress levels, improved mood, enhanced psychological wellbeing and improved attention and concentration.
Although not the only cohort that can benefit from the outdoors, wilderness therapy is often used with youth at risk to help them address emotional, adjustment, addiction or psychological problems. Programmes typically provide healthy exercise and diet, individual and group therapy, educational curricula, primitive skills, group-living with peers, opportunities for solo time and reflection leadership training and challenges resulting from ‘back-to basics’ living.
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