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  • Larissa Martin

Why We Need To Shut Down The ‘Troubled Teen’ Industry

I recently watched “Hell Camp,” a documentary about troubled American teens whose families sent them to a “therapy camp” in the harsh Utah desert. The conditions were brutal, but the staff was even worse, and this is one of the biggest problems with “therapy camps.” 

In 1988, Steve Cartisano created the Challenger Foundation. The organization sponsored a wilderness survival program for troubled teens. Teenagers whose parents enrolled them in the Challenger program were taken from their beds in the middle of the night and transported to the wilderness. Once they arrived at camp, these troubled youths faced hours of back-breaking work, harsh outdoor conditions, and abusive punishments if they refused to follow the rules. Their lives truly became a living Hell.

Now, these camps continue to operate and cause trauma to teens across the country.

Right now, there are close to 40 wilderness therapy programs in the United States, and they’re part of a much bigger “troubled teen industry.” The United States has around 2,000 overall “troubled teen” programs, and 150,000 to 200,000 children currently participate in these programs. 

But these camps are dangerous. Teens face strict rules, have to give up basic privileges, and receive harsh punishments for any rules they break. In some of these programs, staff or other participants mock, restrain, or hit teenagers for minor rule violations. Teens have to obey rules and “level up” to receive access to contact with the outside world, including calls with their parents. In some cases, these “troubled teens” face pressure to participate in abusing other participants, and if they don’t, staff may punish them too. The extreme conditions in these “therapy camps” have caused hundreds of teens, some of whom did nothing worse than forget a small rule, to die. 

In recent years, these programs have caught the attention of more than just Netflix.

Survivors of the troubled teen industry have spoken out about the abuse they faced both online and on shows like Dateline. Hashtags like #breakingcodesilence have drawn attention to the suicides and other deaths that have impacted “troubled teens” in these “Hell Camps.” Even celebrities are speaking out — in 2022, Paris Hilton opened up about the sexual abuse she experienced at Provo Canyon School, a Utah boarding school for “troubled teens.” Now, survivors are filing lawsuits against “therapy camp” founders, like Steve Cartisano, and program staff who contributed to their trauma. Even parents of students who died in these programs are suing the foundations that run “therapeutic boarding schools.”

Many of the parents who choose to send their teens away to these programs aren’t bad people.

They simply didn’t do enough research or believed what these programs claim on their websites and in testimonials. When a parent has a rebellious teen on their hands and isn’t sure how to handle their behavior, sending them off to a wilderness camp or similar program might seem like the best hope of improving their behavior. The problem is that some parents see these programs as an “easy out” for caring for their teenagers who are simply acting like teenagers. It’s important for all parents to realize that these programs will cause their teens trauma and may lead them to develop mental illnesses, self-harm or self-medicate, or even attempt suicide.

Instead of bringing teens into the troubled teen industry, we should be setting them up for success in the future. We need to develop programs where teens have access to caring, responsible mental health professionals or can safely step away from drugs, gangs, and violence. We need to shut down these programs that are responsible for so many teens dying or facing lifelong trauma. Netflix was right — these camps truly are Hell — and they aren’t the answer to helping rebellious teens choose a safer path.

Featured Photo by Huyen Nguy on Unsplash.


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