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Rob Streit JN Intern
Jewish camps proactively serve the mental health needs of young people.
Summer camp is a rite of passage for most Jewish youths. The formative experiences camp affords young adults often carry over into real-world application, such as teamwork and the ability to adapt.
But as any teen or parent knows, these can be the most turbulent years in someone’s life. Mental health issues often manifest themselves during this time — frequently undiagnosed or untreated. Summer camp presents teens with social situations that can sometimes be stressful, which can trigger feelings of isolation or depression.
What happens when a young person experiences a mental health crisis at camp?
“There is an awareness of the stigma around mental health,” says Camp Ramah in Canada Director Ron Polster. “It’s important to talk about.”
The Ontario-based camp hosts about 400 kids at any given time and has four social workers on staff who work as parent liaisons. Campers undergo a pre-summer screening before arriving at camp.
“We have meetings with campers and families as problems arise, or we might talk with therapists back home,” Polster says.
Tamarack Camps in Ortonville has two fulltime social workers on staff and another specifically dedicated to working with young boys. Tamarack trains all its staffers in suicide and self-harm prevention, as well as how to help campers deal with anxiety. A Camper Care Team is staffed with doctors, nurses, social workers and parent liaisons to help kids if problems arise.
“Camp is really a reflection of what’s going on in the community and society, and we’re seeing the same things the whole community is seeing,” says Franki Bagdade, Tamarack director of camper care.
“We’re seeing an increase in anxiety and mental health concerns happening at younger ages, so that’s why we’ve been proactive, and we’ve more than doubled our social worker support in the last five years,” Bagdade says.
Rabbi Avi Orlow, vice president of program and innovatin for the New York-based nonprofit Foundation for Jewish Camp, says camp should provide an escape for kids.
“Camp itself can serve as a protective factor, creating a sukkat shalom (peaceful shelter) from the busy lives of kids and teens today,” he says. “While at camp, they are in a safe and welcoming environment and have far less exposure to harmful peer pressure, social media, electronics and other external factors that may negatively impact mental health.”
Teen mental health has received a good deal of attention lately given the rise of school shootings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in four children in the U.S. is affected by an anxiety disorder, and 80 percent never receive treatment. Suicide rates among teens age 15 to 19 have been climbing since the late 2000s. Males are more likely to commit suicide, though the rate for females is the highest since 1975.
Camp counselors and administrators are faced with the difficult task of identifying campers who are showing early signs of mental illness.
“We are always cognizant of kids hanging out by themselves,” Polster says. “There are so many staff and specialists that outliers are identified quickly. Kids often will come to counselors directly with issues.”
Administrators have noticed campers using the mental health services available to them at an increasing rate. It may be part of a larger pattern.
“It goes up every year. If you’re reading newspapers, following the media and trends everywhere, it’s happening in our country and it is certainly happening here,” Bagdade says. “I think we’re talking about it more, which is amazing, and more people are able to get treatment. But we are seeing a higher prevalence.”
Camp Ramah has seen a similar uptick.
“In a positive way, it’s talked about more. There are more occasions to talk about it, and people are more comfortable,” Polster says.
Nationwide, camp administrators are trying to get ahead of any issues that may arise during the summer.
“We have heard from camp professionals that they have made adjustments to their intake forms to glean additional information from families to be able to care for campers throughout the summer in various situations,” Orlow says.
Getting help early can lead to better outcomes for teens. The CDC says mental disorders are chronic illnesses, which may persist throughout someone’s life. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, problems at home or school often arise and may continue into adulthood.
A PROACTIVE APPROACH
Camps are taking a holistic approach to helping teens struggling with mental health issues. Instead of dealing with problems as they arise, camps take preventative measures to ensure campers’ needs are met.
Tamarack’s Bagdade encourages the entire staff to check in with each camper on a one-on-one basis every day.
“That’s not just the responsibility of the bunk counselor, but also the responsibility of our lifeguards and our art specialists and our dance teachers — everyone who is part of camp, so we’re giving the invitation for campers to share with us if they are struggling,” Bagdade says.
Teens who struggle at camp oftentimes become counselors themselves as they get older. They frequently form a bond with a particular staff member and want to provide that kind of support to younger campers who may be working through similar issues.
“It happens all the time. I get that reason often during interviews,” Bagdade says. “People want to come back because they felt like they were really supported by our staff or by some of our amazing counselors who were mentors to them. Those staff really connect so beautifully with our campers who are struggling.”
There is a similar retention rate at Camp Ramah.
“They kept coming back to camp, and some are our head staff. We have a 90 percent return rate in campers and staff,” Polster says. “It’s a continuum.”