WNMU Offers Outdoor Behavioral Health Courses for Social Workers

Western New Mexico University students gather for an outdoor class. The university is one of the few institutions in the country offering outdoor behavioral health training.

© Western New Mexico University

Western New Mexico University is one of just a couple institutions in the nation and the only university in the state offering formal outdoor behavioral health and wilderness therapy training for social workers and other helping professionals.

With two outdoor behavioral health classes fully developed, WNMU is ahead of the curve in this emerging field. It will add an adventure therapy class in spring 2019, and two additional courses — Individual and Group Skills I & II — will open for enrollment soon.

The classes provide students and current practitioners a foundation in outdoor behavioral health, which is defined as the prescriptive use of wilderness experiences by a licensed mental health professional.

“This is a field that’s been effective for years, and it’s beginning to be considered by third party reimbursement — private insurance and Medicaid — in New Mexico,” said WNMU Assistant Professor of Social Work Eric Moore, who is instrumental in writing this curriculum.

The outdoor behavioral health concentration is closely aligned with the university’s initiative of recognizing the Gila National Forest as a community asset and integrating it into curriculum.

“We also felt like this would complement the university’s undergraduate outdoor leadership program,” Moore said.

All outdoor behavioral health classes offered by WNMU are taught using a hybrid platform of face-to-face video conferencing and online instruction. Built into the existing classes are exercises that include increasing cohesion and internal resiliency. The final two courses will be heavily focused on teaching the students how clinical knowledge, values and skills combine with nature to increase wellbeing and create a satisfying therapeutic outcome.

“Outdoor behavior health has a lot of utility for not only treatment but also for prevention, intervention and aftercare,” Moore said.

Every faculty member contributing to the courses has a background in experiential education, which falls under the umbrella of outdoor behavioral health.

“We all have experienced the natural therapeutic power of being in nature,” Moore said. “I’ve recently come from the field, where I saw firsthand how beneficial programs that involved nature were in encouraging positive youth development in communities.”

Western New Mexico University faculty presented their outdoor behavioral health and wilderness therapy curriculum at a San Antonio social work conference this spring. They will share about outdoor behavioral health training again at a rural social work conference this July and plan to demonstrate some of the program’s exercises at the Silver City Drug Institute in August.

WNMU Professor of Social Work Dr. Robert Rickle, who is also on the curriculum committee, said, “We’ve seen a growing interest in this type of treatment. Outdoor behavioral health is a billing category, and we anticipate a future need for qualified providers.”

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