Eco-Adventure Therapy and the Rekindling of the Warrior Spirit

There is a new form of unconventional therapy that continues to gain traction in the mental health community across the U.S. and elsewhere. Interestingly, the advice centered around this highly-effective and popular form of mental-health therapy is also what our parents have been telling us for decades: “Go outside and play.”

Those of us who were insubordinate little shits when we were kids and remain skeptical as adults, however, have taken a bit longer to catch on to the benefits of what has been most commonly referred to as “Ecotherapy.”

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The White Heart Foundation, though, has recognized the value of this simple yet effective treatment and is committed to its continued use. Eco-Adventure Therapy, as a whole, encompasses a wide range of treatment programs which aim to improve mental and physical well-being through outdoor, recreational activities. It is designed to foster a connection to the natural world that cannot be obtained from behind the windows of our cars, homes, or offices.  

The main reason White Heart, and medical professionals across the globe, are using this type of therapeutic exercise is a simple one: it works. A study performed by the University of Essex in England found that 90 percent of the study’s participants reported a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and nearly seventy-five percent felt less depressed.

And, on our side of the pond, for patients suffering from obesity, anxiety, depression, and diabetes, Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician in Washington, D.C., regularly pulls out his prescription pad and jots down outdoor activities—like a walk in the park—just as though he were prescribing a medication, according to an article in The Atlantic.

As wonderful as these low-impact forms of Ecotherapy seem to work, the Warriors supported by the White Heart Foundation need more than just a stroll in the park or stopping to sniff the tulips. Launched in 2016, the Guardian Project is White Heart’s flagship mental-health program that utilizes eco-adventure therapy and genuine, rugged ass-kickery. Led by White Heart Warrior Cpl. Jed Morgan, and with the help of trained professionals, groups of veterans are taken on remote outdoor excursions with the goal of improving mental and physical well-being. Through activities such as: rock climbing, rappelling, fishing, camping, and white-water rafting, the Guardian Project creates a unique and comfortable environment where veterans battling Post-Traumatic Stress or Military Sexual Trauma can help each other to heal.

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After the strenuous activities of the day, our Warriors are encouraged to gather around the fire, so they can open up, share, and relate to others who have had similar experiences. Through the time honored ritual of camp fire conversation, we hope to foster a sense of camaraderie built out of trust and shared adversity. This does not mean someone is going to bust out an acoustic guitar or tambourine and start singing “Kumbaya.” Unless you want those instruments to become firewood—then feel free.  

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure,” Jon Krakauer wrote in Into the Wild. And we at White Heart believe that the effectiveness of the Guardian Project rests on just this type of philosophy. The Warriors we serve all signed up for the ultimate adventure, the one that asks you to give everything for your country—up to and including one’s life—if necessary.

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Therefore, through programs like the Guardian Project, we try and give them a taste of what they may have lost upon leaving military service. We give them something familiar to all of them—an unfamiliar terrain where they must band together to overcome mutual struggle. But also a quiet place to reflect on personal hardship, and a safe space to bond over shared trauma and experiences. And we do our damndest to show these men and women that their Warrior Spirit isn’t something that they can lose. For a time, it may be quieted—but never silenced.   

"The brotherhood of other combat veterans experiencing a new chapter in their lives through the healing powers of nature has helped me move on from suicide and isolation,” said White Heart Warrior Jeremiah Montell, “it has given me a voice to share my experiences with civilians and to rally my fellow veterans to rise up and be the next greatest generation.”

Alec McPike

Alec McPike is a U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and is currently a freelance writer and blogger living in Los Angeles.