The Observers

Survivors of abusive US 'troubled teen' programs break their silence on TikTok

Survivors have turned to TikTok to speak up about patterns of abuse and mistreatment at US "troubled teen" wilderness programs.
Survivors have turned to TikTok to speak up about patterns of abuse and mistreatment at US "troubled teen" wilderness programs. © Observers

From being denied food and water to being put into isolation and forced to undergo "attack therapy", Americans have been reporting dangerous conditions at wilderness programs for "troubled teens". They've started to share their stories on TikTok to raise awareness of the issue.

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The “troubled teen industry” in the United States is a multi-billion dollar industry dating back to the 1960s that includes for-profit boarding schools, treatment centres and wilderness camps that are advertised as therapeutic programs for teenagers experiencing problems with behaviour, mental health, alcohol or drug dependence, eating disorders and more. 

But in reality, some of the young people who were in these programs say they are full of emotional and physical abuse that cause a lifetime of trauma.

“Code silence” refers to a common punishment used in these types of programs where the “patient” is socially isolated and not allowed to speak. The young people in these camps are regularly isolated from other participants and kept from contacting their friends and family back home.

An association called Breaking Code Silence was created in March to provide support to survivors and bring attention to the troubled teen industry. Now, the hashtag #BreakingCodeSilence has more than 320 million views on TikTok.

We spoke to Vanessa Hughes, director of Breaking Code Silence, about the conditions in these programs and the long-term impacts they can have on survivors.

>> Read more on The Observers: Survivors of the ‘troubled teen’ industry share the impacts of wilderness treatment camps