Outer Banks depicts the devastating reality of the troubled teen industry


Kellyn Taylor

Illustration by Kellyn Taylor

By Meg Richards, Staff Writer

The third season of the hit Netflix original series “Outer Banks,” featuring the usual hunt for lost treasure and steamy romance scenes, highlights a harsh reality for thousands of teenagers who struggle with their mental health in the United States.

Premiering on Feb. 23. to the excitement of fans worldwide, the series first gained popularity in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its third season sailed to No. 1 on the Netflix charts with more than 154 million hours viewed in the first four days

In season three—spoiler alert—one of our lead characters, Kiara, is sent to Kitty Hawk, a wilderness therapy camp, by her parents after a couple conflicts involving her friends and their search for treasure. This plotline, albeit short, showcases a national problem that is often overlooked and underrepresented in the media: the corrupt and abusive troubled teen industry. 

Kiara is kidnapped by two strangers in front of her parents—who called the camp without consulting Kiara—and taken to a wilderness therapy camp where communication with friends, family, and the outside world is forbidden. She is immediately diagnosed with ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, because of her resistance to the adults at the camp, and told she’ll be put on medication. When she resists, she’s placed in solitary confinement for hours. Although she eventually gets rescued by her knight-in-shining-trucker-hat, JJ, this is no dramatized account of what thousands of teens in America experience every year.

Wilderness therapy is a type of residential treatment for mental health that emphasizes outdoor activities and behavioral rehabilitation. The kids who are sent here, generally between the ages of 13-18, struggle with a wide array of mental health problems—most often depression, anxiety, drug use, or suicidal ideation. 

While they may sound great in theory, most of these centers are reported to keep  patients in unclean, unsafe, and sometimes unlivable conditions. Meals are few and far between, if edible at all, and this is all after patients are taken without their consent in the middle of the night. Despite allegations of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse—something consistent with most therapeutic boarding schools that deal with “troubled teens”—these camps continue to thrive. 

Perhaps the most popular representation of wilderness therapy in the media is the eponymous Dr. Phil. The daytime talk show, “Dr. Phil,” features teenagers who struggle in any sort of capacity. When this struggle happens to be a mental health crisis or a domestic conflict, his solution is to send them to his ranch, where they are kept in abusive and unsafe conditions. 

Dr. Phil Alumni Danielle “Bhad Bhabie” Bregoli, who rose to fame after her viral “catch me outside” clip from the show, was sent to this wilderness therapy ranch by Dr. Phil at just 13 years old. According to Refinery29, she recounts being handcuffed, kidnapped, given inedible food, and “denied necessity privileges,” such as sleeping in bed at night. Others who survived Dr. Phil’s ranch have accused staff members of sexual assault and recalled witnessing the death of a counselor.

Sexual assault allegations, abuse, and even death are not specific to wilderness therapy camps in particular. Therapeutic boarding schools and other rehabilitation centers for “troubled teens” across the country are riddled with lawsuits for the very same problems found in wilderness therapy camps. 

Paris Hilton, the style icon and social media personality of the early 2000s, has been a prominent advocate for taking down the multi-billion dollar troubled teen industry. In her 2020 documentary “This Is Paris,” she spoke of her own traumatic experience in wilderness therapy and at a therapeutic boarding school. Hilton has been a champion for elevating the real-life stories of survivors who experienced kidnapping, abuse, neglect, and worse at these facilities, and testified to Congress in 2021 for more government oversight of this network. Her efforts have encouraged survivors to share their stories on social media with the hashtag #BreakingCodeSilence.

It is incredibly impactful for a show as popular as “Outer Banks” to represent the true colors of wilderness therapy and the troubled teen industry. While Hilton, Bregoli, and others are drawing public attention to this multi-billion dollar industry of mistreatment, these facilities haven’t slowed down. According to USAToday, the troubled teen industry boomed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and thousands of teens, whose struggles make them susceptible to these programs, will continue to be victimized or traumatized every year if people don’t start speaking up. 

“Outer Banks” should be commended for its accurate depiction of a topic  rarely talked about in the media and public, and more teen shows should strive to follow in their footsteps.