Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) Center

University of New Hampshire in the College of Health and Human Services

Established in 2015 with the mission to advance the field of adventure therapy and outdoor behavioral healthcare through the development of best practices, effective treatments, and evidenced-based research.

OBH Center Changes are Coming!

Since its inception, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) Center has promoted research, accreditation and risk management in wilderness and adventure therapy programs. The Center evolved from the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative (OBHRC), which began in 1999 under the direction of Dr. Keith Russell. To date, the OBH Center has been led by Dr. Michael Gass and Dr. Anita R. Tucker, with research conducted by seven active research scientists, affiliate researchers, graduate students, and community partners. This collective effort has led to over 200 research studies, leading to best practices, ethical guidelines, and insurance reimbursement in wilderness and adventure therapy. We are grateful for the vision and leadership of Dr. Gass, who is retiring in May 2024 to spend more time adventuring with family & friends.
The OBH Center is excited to announce its reorganization under the new leadership of Dr. Anita Tucker and Dr. Christine Lynn Norton with an expanded focus on Experiential Learning and Outdoor Therapy to include evolving practices in experiential education; public health and wellness; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the outdoors; and clinical applications of experiential and outdoor practices. This process began in June 2023 when the Center’s funding grant with the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council was ended in an intentional effort to address concerns around transparency in research. We at the OBH Center stand behind the research we have conducted since its inception guided by our dedication to objective and critical research of outdoor therapies in both community and wilderness settings. We also understand the need to evolve as the field evolves and we look forward to ongoing dialogue and partnerships with current and future stakeholders.

As part of this process we are working with Julia Alvarez and Point B(e) Strategies in strategic planning in order to best guide our future direction in this evolution. We have an active group of practitioners, researchers, scholars, and stakeholders involved in this process and look forward to reaching out for feedback from our professional community and sharing our new initiatives and directions in the coming year.

OBH Center's Response to
“A Collaborative Open Letter to the International Adventure Therapy Community”

A recent open letter was written and shared on social media calling for important reforms in the “troubled teen industry” in the United States, with a particular focus on wilderness therapy/OBH programs. We believe this letter originated out of legitimate concerns that were brought to light by the tragic death of a 12-year-old boy at an accredited wilderness therapy program. As researchers who have examined the safety and efficacy of these programs, we share these concerns.

The “troubled teen industry” in the United States is considered to be comprised of congregate care/residential treatment programs (often involuntary), including residential wilderness therapy programs. Though high-quality and customized congregate care can be lifesaving for children and youth with complex clinical or behavioral needs (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2015), there are emerging concerns about whether or not wilderness therapy programs are an appropriate form of congregate care.  Too often, youth who receive congregate care get stuck in a treatment pipeline in which their voice and autonomy are compromised. Furthermore, some of these programs have been accused of coercion and abuse, which requires more oversight, both through accreditation and legislation.

The OBH Center cares deeply about these issues and is committed to researching experiential and outdoor interventions to better determine what are safe, ethical, inclusive, and effective practices. We believe that research can help inform practice, and that practice should also inform research. For this reason, we have tried to build intentional partnerships with outdoor therapy providers across the continuum of care.  Our research began with a focus on wilderness therapy but has expanded to consider community-based adventure therapy, ethics, and outdoor interventions with special populations (veterans, youth with lived experience in foster care, adopted youth, youth with autism spectrum disorders, transgender youth, etc.). We have also examined the psychological risks and contraindications of outdoor therapy (Norton & Tucker, 2019), who declines in wilderness therapy (Bettmann et al., 2023), along with efforts to reform wilderness therapy based on clients’ experiences (Norton & Fanlo, 2023).

As OBH researchers, we have advocated for change in the AEE/OBH Accreditation Standards to include key requirements around involuntary treatment, youth transport, client rights, client voice, and client grievances. We have also worked with legislators to support licensing and regulation at the State level. We support outside accreditation of outdoor therapy programs; however, we realize this may not be enough to keep clients safe, therefore, we agree with the open letter’s call to support the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Legislation.

Though we agreed with many points in the open letter, we have concerns that the letter did not accurately reflect current efforts to improve outdoor therapy practices that are already occurring in the United States. In collaboration with other international practitioners, we sent proposed changes to the original authors in good faith as we would like to collaborate with the International Adventure Therapy community in continuing to improve OBH research and practice in the United States. Anyone who would like to dialogue more, feel free to reach out to obhcenter@gmail.com.
Additional references:

Bettmann, J. E., Martinez-Gutierrez, N., Esrig, R., Blumenthal, E., & Mills, L. (2023). Who declines and who improves in wilderness therapy? Child & Youth Care Forum. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10566-023-09781-6

Norton, C.L., & Tucker, A. (2019, June). The psychological risks of adventure therapy. Presented at the Association for Experiential Education Therapeutic Adventure Professional Group’s Best Practices Conference, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL.

Norton, C.L., & Fanlo, C. (2023, July). Reforming wilderness therapy: Enhancing client rights and client voice. Presented at the Association for Experiential Education’s Therapeutic Best Practices Conference, Lewis and Clark University, Portland, Oregon.


OBH Center Transport Task Force

Guided by our belief in the importance of client voice and client choice, the OBH Center lead by Dr. Christine Norton and Dr. Michael Gass came together with a collaborative group of stakeholders (parents, clients who have been transported, program staff, clinicians, transport professionals and researchers) to explore transport in wilderness programs and make recommendations for best practices.

Click Here for a copy of the OBH Center Task Force's Report

Ethics Statement

Transparency, objectivity, and trust are critical features of all practices of the OBH Center. All of the research produced by the OBH Center is reviewed by the Institutional Review Board of the University of New Hampshire for ethical and accurate research practices before any studies ever begin. All research practices conducted by the Center follow not only the guidelines of this Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of New Hampshire, but also the Missenden Code of ethics and accountability (2002) for appropriate ethical practices by university research entities. Research conducted by the OBH Center seeks to:

  • address universal problems resulting in benefits for society as a whole
  • be objective in the design and implementation of research activities and take an unbiased position in reporting results
  • conduct all operations openly, honestly, objectively, and responsibly
  • disclose to all colleagues and the public any financial or personal interests so that audiences are fully informed.
  • be independent in the research and publication of any informed findings and publications

The Center currently receives its funding from foundation grants aimed at improving outdoor therapy services for participants across the continuum of treatment.