Insights into adolescents' mental health during Outward Bound programs


James T. Neill
Bernd Heubeck

Proceedings of the 9th National Outdoor Education Conference, Jan 15-20, Gold Coast, Australia, 1995


Mental health is an important outcome for outdoor education and personal development programs. Two factors - psychological distress and psychological well-being - are considered to be separate but related aspects of mental health. The effects of Outward Bound Australia high school programs on the mental health factors were examined using the General Well-Being (GWB), a 35-item self-report instrument. There were three mental health assessments: pre-program (one to two weeks before the program), during program, and followup (six to eight weeks after the program). The experimental group consisted of 143 males and 108 females. A control group consisted of 56 males and 59 females. Overall, adolescents reported experiencing a temporary reduction in the quality of their mental health during the Outward Bound program. In followup results, however, the adolescents reported gains in the quality of mental health, above what they had reported experiencing prior to the Outward Bound program. These apparent improvements in mental health are confounded by significant control group results.  Hence full confirmation of the findings awaits further control group testing.  The results also presented some gender differences. Generally, female adolescents tended to report better mental health than male adolescents. Male adolescents reported a greater increase in psychological distress during their Outward Bound program. Males also reported less psychological well-being during the Outward Bound program than females. However, these differences could have been contributed to by non-gender factors, such as different high schools and different weather conditions during the programs.  According to these findings, temporary reductions in mental health quality can lead to longer-term mental health benefits. This notion highlights a moral and ethical dilemma. If outdoor organisations and leaders are knowingly putting people through experiences which can cause temporary compromises in the quality of mental health, it is imperative that there are proven long-term benefits. On the other hand, simply conducting programs which are enjoyable may be to forgo a vast range of developmental opportunities.

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