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When the Cameras Are Rolling

January 1, 2006
by Jennifer C. Jones
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A Utah wilderness therapy program faced conflicts when it became a reality TV subject

Six teenagers, two staff members from the RedCliff Ascent program, and a camera crew are trekking across the frozen plateau in the southern Utah wilderness. The teens are part of a selected group from Great Britain. They are experiencing firsthand the rigors of wilderness therapy as practiced by Utah-based RedCliff.

A British production company selected RedCliff for a television documentary called Brat Camp, taped in the winter of 2003. The show aired nationally on ABC Family, as well as on networks in Great Britain and Australia in 2004. The documentary generated a storm of controversy on Internet message boards around the world.

Reality TV shows such as the AandE Network's Intervention (see letter from the editor in May 2005 issue) are capturing the attention of viewers. Some producers eager to break new ground have approached therapy programs. This forces professionals to ask whether clients in treatment are fair game for the viewing public, particularly when the cameras are focused on kids.

“As a therapist I'm a people researcher, so to watch Brat Camp was fascinating,” says Thomas Kimball, PhD, an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University. “I have serious concerns about us portraying minors who need help on TV and portraying it as entertainment, especially minors who aren't able to give consent in meaningful ways.”

Dr. Kimball says reality TV plays to a common side of human nature. “We're fascinated by things that are ugly. We look when there's a car accident. Traffic backs up and we watch it. That's why reality TV is so hot. It feeds our need to look in on people's lives.”

Tamara Abood, producer for London-based TwentyTwenty Television, which created Brat Camp, says antisocial behavior among teens and issues of family breakdown were grabbing headlines and political attention in Britain at the time the show was being conceptualized. “The idea was to show how our cousins across the water tackle these issues,” Abood says. “We wanted to educate and inform families.”

That led producers to Internet research and RedCliff Ascent, which operates programs for young people in the 13-to-17 and 18-to-25 age ranges. The program combines therapeutic interventions with a demanding outdoor-adventure experience. Most participants have substance abuse problems, and some have a dual diagnosis. The average stay is 66 days.

“We knew instantly they were the program for us,” Abood recalls. “They have a devoted staff. You got a clear feeling that you were dealing with committed professionals.”

Agency apprehension

While the producers were convinced, RedCliff officials were not. “Our biggest concern was the privacy of our students and the potential impact on the therapeutic process,” says agency spokesman Stephen C. Schultz. “We wondered, ‘How are the kids going to react? Are they going to play to the camera?’”

“We weren't looking to find someone—we weren't soliciting,” notes Daniel M. Sanderson, PhD, RedCliff's clinical director. RedCliff officials and the producers discussed the project for weeks. Dr. Sanderson says ultimately the clinical staff made the final decision. “The thing that swayed us more than anything else is we were promised we would have therapeutic control over how things would go,” he says. “We told the company we would not alter the program or stage events. We were going to do whatever was necessary to make sure it was in the child's best interest. We were there to provide treatment.”

Selecting the students

“All of the potential applicants met with a U.K. psychologist,” says Dr. Sanderson, known as “Doc Dan” to colleagues. “Then the production executives went through and selected the ones they thought would be most appropriate.” Even with input from a mental health professional, Dr. Sanderson admits that some of the youths who made the TV cut never would have been accepted into the RedCliff program under typical circumstances.

“I have serious concerns about us portraying minors who need help on TV and portraying it as entertainment, especially minors who aren't able to give consent in meaningful ways.”

˜ Thomas Kimball, PhD

“The only way they were here is because someone else was paying their way,” he says of the U.K. youths, who were grouped with U.S. youths in the programs. “Their parents weren't as invested.”

One of the U.S. youths, 16-year-old Jessica, was about to embark on a therapeutic experience that she says changed her life. Now 18, Jessica describes her life at that time: “I was wanting to experience the world and do everything I could regardless of the consequences.” Jessica was addicted to methamphetamine. “My parents saw RedCliff as their only hope.”

Jessica's mother, Erin, learned about RedCliff on the Internet. “We were trying to find an alternative method rather than taking her to a hospital lockdown scenario. She needed something that would jar her to the bone.”

Jessica had been at RedCliff just five days before being included in the Brat Camp group. Although Erin had signed a consent form with RedCliff authorizing the company to use Jessica's picture in various materials, Erin says, “It's kind of a mixed bag. You feel personally invaded a little that they will air your kid nationally. But our feeling was it would be for the greater good.”

Timing: Less than perfect

A hallmark of RedCliff's program is that it is open-ended, with no fixed graduation point. “All of the students from the U.K. were not at the same level. They did not progress at the same rate,” says Dr. Sanderson. “We constantly had to remind the producer in the U.K. that this was the way we did it. We weren't graduating anyone earlier.”