Safety and Risk in Perspective

Learn More About Safety and Risk in Perspective

Fear is a major motivator for all people. We worry that an airplane crash, outbreak of West Nile virus, terrorist attack, deadly snake bite, or vicious shark attack is just around the corner. Because the media serves up images and news stories that feed into our fears, the real-life risks can sometimes get blown out of proportion.Since the introduction of wilderness programs, the media has spread news of isolated injuries that cast a shadow on wilderness therapy. Unfortunately, risk is a natural part of daily life, and camps or outdoor activities of any kind come with risks. Wilderness programs have turned around the lives of thousands of troubled teens during that time. It would be a tremendous loss if families miss an opportunity to enrich their child’s life because of over-inflated fears.

The staff and management at most wilderness camps and residential treatment centers are highly qualified and have dedicated their lives to making a genuine difference in the lives of troubled teens. They are caring, educated people who are committed to teaching teens skills to improve their lives. First-aid and first-responder training are considered critically important at any quality wilderness program.

Most wilderness camps use state-of-the-art safety procedures and have small camper-to-instructor ratios that further ensure each child’s safety. With emergency medical services close at hand, wilderness camps are well-prepared to deal with the rare accident or injury. Many of the most respected wilderness programs have confidently opened their doors to the media, being featured on television and talk shows for their positive impact on thousands of families.

Many of the risks present at wilderness programs are inherent in all outdoor activities, and in fact are much more common in leisure and recreation activities. For example, at Yosemite National Park, there were 119 hiking incidents in 2002. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 900 people are killed annually in bicycle crashes, and hospital emergency departments deal with 567,000 bicycle-related injuries every year.

It’s difficult to summarize the risk of injury at wilderness camp because of the huge variety of settings, participants, and programs involved. For instance, boot camps tend to come with more risk than wilderness camps because of the extreme physical demands and emotional distress. Of the hundreds of wilderness programs available, perhaps a dozen employ harsh or questionable methods. Regrettably, this is the case in most industries – a few bad seeds reflect poorly on even the safest programs.

The truth is, children have the best chance to enjoy the outdoors safely and explore some of the challenges of nature under the watchful eye of wilderness instructors trained in first response aid and who themselves have spent years in the wilderness. Many of the teens participating in wilderness programs are in greater danger by staying at home and continuing their self-destructive behaviors.

When looked at in a broader perspective, the risks in wilderness programs are low compared to other risks teens commonly face. The two leading causes of death among adolescents are motor vehicle crashes and firearms. In just one year, in 2004, motor vehicle traffic caused 5,113 teen deaths and 2,494 adolescents aged 15 to 19 years were killed by firearms. The traffic accidents often involve teen drinking.

Among children 5 to 14 years old, the top three causes of death are accidents, cancer, and homicide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The top three causes of death for people 15 to 24 years old are accidents, homicide, and suicide. Accidental deaths are most commonly caused by automobile accidents, poisoning, drowning, firearms, fire, and falls. Influenza alone killed 75 teens in 2002. Studies have shown that people tend to misjudge risk levels – a great example is the fear of flying. Crashes are extremely rare, but people fear this far more than driving on the freeway, where crashes are much more frequent.

Another growing risk to young children is the now-common sedentary lifestyle dominated by television, video games, and computers. Overweight, inactive children are five to six times more likely to be at serious risk of heart disease, according to a study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill. Wilderness can inculcate a love for the outdoors and move teens toward more active lifestyles that will improve their health over the long run.

Children face greater danger on the local playground than in the great outdoors. Each year in the United States, emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children for playground-related injuries. Between 1990 and 2000, 147 children died from playground-related injuries such as falls and strangulation. Seventy percent of these deaths occurred on home playgrounds. These statistics have not stopped families from adding a swing set to the back yard, because they know these events can be prevented with proper supervision and safety measure.

Compare these common risks to the extremely low risk in wilderness therapy programs. At most wilderness camps, the risk of harm is equivalent to school physical education programs and sports, and even lower than the risk of playing contact sports. Just by crossing the street, one in 48,500 people will die each year, but we can’t stop crossing the street if we want to get to the other side. Instead, we evaluate the risks and do our best to avoid jay-walking or doing anything that increases our odds of injury.

In a society ruled by fear, it is the public that misses out. We take risks from the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we fall asleep at night. Certainly, all risks must be calculated and assessed, and reasonable concern is healthy. But research has repeatedly shown that adventure activities and wilderness programs are significantly safer than most other traditional physical activities.

If your teen is in trouble, don’t let unwarranted fear deter you from getting the help you and your family need.

The wilderness therapy offered at SUWS was the dynamic solution needed to help my son with his behavioral issues. When my son left SUWS, he was completely changed for the better and also created new bonds and unforgettable memories! I can't recommend SUWS enough for anyone in a similar situation!

– Britney A.