Natalia Ruiz de Cortázar. Experientia

Adventure Therapy, a pioneering path to health through wild nature

This is the path of Natalia Ruiz de Cortázar, a pioneer in her professional area and Professor at FTHub: Master in Mental Health Counselling, psychologist, psychoeducational guide and Wilderness Therapist who develops her work through Experientia, a non-profit organisation formed by mental health and intervention professionals that offers a different and validated way of doing therapy: Adventure Therapy. 

“We design tailor-made therapeutic programmes for different groups and entities of the third social and health sector (hospitals, educational centres, associations, etc.). We use adventure activities and experiences in nature as therapeutic tools in the intervention, in order to involve the person actively in their process of change at a physical, cognitive and emotional level. In other words, we move our practice to natural environments to provide meaningful experiences that allow people to develop aspects that improve their quality of life and well-being”.

“It is an innovative therapeutic intervention methodology in Spain, but with great development in other countries such as the USA, Australia, Canada, Germany, UK, Scandinavian countries, Belgium, etc., where this type of intervention has been successfully researched and developed for more than 60 years”. 

“Our work has been to introduce, adapt and develop the methodology of adventure therapy and nature therapy in our context. We offer training programmes and promote lines of scientific research that validate international results in our country”.

How did Adventure Therapy emerge in your professional field?

In 2012 I had the opportunity to obtain a scholarship to study for a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counselling in New York, USA. During my internship, one of my classmates mentioned what for me were the magic words that changed the course of my professional career: Wilderness Therapy. He immediately caught my attention and I interrupted him without thinking: What is that? Sounds perfect to me. At the end of that meeting I immersed myself in Google for hours (and days) to explore as much as possible about this world that was opening up to me. When I finished my Master’s degree I had a one-year work visa and I used it to work in two different programmes, one in Utah and one in Arizona, as a Wilderness Guide and as a Wilderness Therapist, doing psychotherapy with young people participating in these programmes and their families. 

When my visa ran out, it was clear to me that this was too good not to exist in Spain, and I decided to return with the aim of making it a reality, and that’s how the adventure began! Within two days of returning from the USA I was coordinating the Experientia Association and putting all my energy into continuing to work in this field in Spain and contributing to making it a reality. That was just 6 years ago. 

It has been an exciting journey, a road of varied landscapes, of many achievements and also of much effort and bumps in the road. Now, more and more professionals are contacting us because they are interested in training and this fulfils our purpose of making Adventure Therapy and Nature Therapy a validated intervention methodology, as it is already happening in many other countries around the world. 

How does Adventure Therapy support people in their health?

Adventure Therapy intentionally uses the natural environment and adventure for self-knowledge and personal development, and to work on therapeutic objectives that are more difficult to achieve in a clinic or closed space. Nature is a relaxed space that offers new contexts far removed from everyday life, allowing for different experiences.  This change of environment allows us to put into practice personal resources that are not used in other contexts of daily life, in addition to the multiple benefits that being exposed to natural environments has on our health. 

People learn by doing, and this methodology is based on experiential learning, accompanying the person in their process of change through experience. Emphasis is also placed on successful behaviours (strengths) rather than dysfunctional behaviours (deficits).

This type of intervention reinforces individual responsibility and voluntary participation, promoting internal motivation to change. In addition, thanks to the therapeutic work developed with mental health professionals, experiences are shared and elaborated, and lessons are learned that can be transferred and incorporated into other settings in everyday life. This leads to an improvement in the health, relationships and quality of life of the person.

Likewise, in this type of intervention, patient and facilitator share experiences, which reinforces the therapeutic alliance, a key element that favours the improvement of well-being in a psychotherapeutic process. 

How can people participate in an Adventure Therapy training course?

Currently there is very little training available. Here in Spain, Experientia offers training programmes for professionals: a recurrent Wilderness Therapy training of 6 days of expedition in nature. We have run 7 international editions (in English) and one in Spanish for the first time last year which we are now also starting to offer on a regular basis. 

This October we are launching a new 90-hour intensive and experiential Adventure Therapy training in a mixed format (online and face-to-face) for those who want to deepen their understanding of the methodology. It also includes an accompaniment to help participants to implement this practice in their intervention and promote professional and personal development work. The programme includes a three-day expedition in nature in Montseny.

Is there any case you would like to highlight in the application of Adventure Therapy?

For Experientia, the implementation of a programme of Adventure Therapy in the service portfolio of the University Hospital of Santa Maria de Lleida is a great example of application. 

It all started as a pilot project driven by psychiatrist Iolanda Batalla and occupational therapist David Fernández Oñate. Thanks to funding from the Diputació de Lleida and a donation from the Ultra Trail Terres de Lleida solidarity race, the project was launched. The team was made up of professionals from the Day Hospital and Experientia and a scientific study was carried out and later a research article was published to explore the benefits of adventure therapy for people with Borderline Personality Disorder. 

A second edition was carried out where the hospital invested funds and subsequently applied for external funding and was also extended to the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Service, where another Adventure Therapy programme was implemented for people with severe mental disorder (schizophrenia and psychosis). 

These are examples of complementary programmes that are integrated into the usual treatment and that enrich the treatment by working together with professionals specialised in the methodology and the centre’s team, who know and follow up the participants. This favours the transfer process and they can accompany the participants on a day-to-day basis to relate the learning that takes place during the programme to their daily lives.

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