In Iceland there is no getting away from nature. This large Nordic island is 103,000 km2, but less than 350 thousand individuals inhabit this vast region. Iceland is rural by nature, volcanic eruptions and geological activity, mountains, glaciers, lava fields, caves, sand deserts, and even some vegetation and small forest areas. Because of the temperate climate and high latitude the summers are rather chilly and therefore very few insects make our country their home. Iceland is for example the only Nordic country that doesn’t have any mosquitoes, a big plus there and in some ways makes up for the short summers.
The Icelandic nation today is a direct descendant from farmers and fishermen and although many of us now live in towns and cities and cultivate other occupations the land, sea and nature still permeates our very being and makes us who we are. The strength of an individual’s character was formerly measured by the way he or she could, in a way, converse with nature. How well they managed during the summer months, how they handled the winter, the ocean, wind, rain and snow. After towns started getting bigger there was and is a societal agreement that youths sent to the country to work on farms came back mature and stronger physically and mentally. It was, and still is, considered a privileged and an important rite of passage to work the land or man a crew.
The National Icelandic Scout Association was founded in 1912 and the first Voluntary Rescue Service was formally founded in 1918. Both have been implemental in keeping Icelanders in touch with nature and in the forming of youth. Indeed, the main advocates of the most famous group associated with Adventure Therapy (AT) in Iceland, Hálendishópurinn (The Highland Group), are originally scouts and youth workers.
The origin of Hálendishópurinn can be traced back to 1982 when The Operation Drake Fellowship (ODF) contacted the Icelandic Youth Foundation and requested cooperation with Icelandic professionals. The first group came to Iceland in 1983 and there were youth exchanges between the two countries until 1986. All the professionals in Hálendishópurinn had specific expertise regarding therapy work, nature, pedagogic effects of community and communication and had years of experience with youth at risk. The first Hálendishópurinn excursions to the sparsely populated West Fjords were in 1989 and soon became popular as a therapeutic option. The work of the group was influenced by writings and practises, created by Kurt Hahn and the Outward Bound schools, and made excursions from 1989 until 2007. After the financial collapse of 2008 there has been no financial support to resurrect the group.
Since 2001 however AT groups have been carried out by occupational therapists at the National University Hospital Mental Health Departments. Æfingastöðin rehabilitation centre for children has hosted regular groups since 2006 and occupational therapists at Reykjavík City have developed an AT program for young adults with a dual diagnosis in long term rehabilitation residencies since 2017.
The systematic therapeutic use of nature as it is used in AT is a relatively new field in Iceland and those AT programs that have been created have been undertaken by therapist with vision and passion. These therapists have been willing to go above and beyond their job description and requirements to provide programs for youngsters in the wild and demanding nature of Iceland. It should be mentioned however that recreational and youth centres, after school programs and various others have used experiential learning and outdoor learning a great deal with good result but without the therapeutic intervention.