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By: Pamela Schuller
The Camp Instructors are Not Therapists
Our summer camp staff are incredible young people, but they are not social workers. When we train our staff, we should train them to spot red flags and take it up the ladder. They have the most important role: knowing their campers and spotting changes in behavior to be concerned about. It is their job to make sure their campers feel heard, and then immediately loop in the camp director or staff social worker when they spot a red flag, so their campers can get the support they need and deserve. It is NOT their job to be armchair therapists.
Kids and teens sometimes stop therapy for the summer to go to camp. While camp is wonderful and filled with fun, it’s not a stress free environment. As a leadership team, consider allowing your campers to continue with therapy, maybe through an online video check-in or a private office to make a phone call. If you had a camper under the care of a doctor for a broken arm, you would ensure they were seen by a doctor at the appropriate time to ensure continuity of care, and mental health check-ups should work the same way. Sometimes, just having that regular check-in can make a huge difference in supporting that camper.
Camp is such an incredible place to build resilience. Do you have a color war or competitions? Instead of an “everybody wins” mentality, equip your staff to talk about failure and failing with grace, resilience and bouncing back. These are incredibly important skills for kids to learn, and these messages are especially powerful coming from their young, cool counselors. Failing forward, or learning from mistakes, is a big win in the end.
Know Your Campers
So many campers say that camp is where they can be their best, most real selves. Use the names and pronouns a camper identifies with, and learn how to pronounce those names (to the best of your ability). Apologize to them and correct yourself if you make a mistake – it happens. Also take the time to get to know a little bit about each kid, likes, hobbies, interests, etc. Being in a new environment, or even just with new cabin mates, can be overwhelming, and having someone there who knows your name and respects your identity can allow a camper to feel a little more at home and a little more seen.
Create a schedule, and let campers know if the schedule is going to change. Anxiety is real, and it’s real for kids and teens. Camp is full of surprises and fun, but for some kids, surprises are unexpected roadblocks that can throw off their summer. Keep that in mind and do your best to share the typical schedule, share when there will be changes, and prepare in advance to give campers who struggle with change a heads up about surprises. For them, it won’t “ruin” the surprise – it will allow them to enjoy it.
Don’t ignore when campers use harmful or offensive language. So often, we hear young people say things like “Oh my gosh, I am so OCD,” or “I have been so Bipolar lately,” as a figure of speech. When this happens, explain why comments like these could be inadvertently hurtful to someone, even if that isn’t their intention. Help campers identify different words to use instead – this will ensure that no one feels ostracized for having a mental health issue, and will help all our campers better articulate their feelings.
Support the Staff
Yes, we should be focused on our campers. But summer camp staff are often at an age where their brains are still developing (until they are 30!), and they are also going through changes and challenges. Create a community where staff can ask for support if needed, and where even adult staff are reminded how important it is for them to take “me time.”
Success looks different for every person. For one person, success may be getting the lead in the camp play and making tons of friends. For another, success may be building one strong relationship and finishing a book they love. They should be celebrated equally.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Ask questions to get to know each person in your community individually. You could put 1,000 people who all have the same diagnosis in one room, and every single person will have a different story and experience. A diagnosis or label gives you the lines on a coloring page – getting to know a person gives you the colors that fill them in and make them unique.
The More You Know…
If your high school or college-age staff have questions about mental-health, well-being, or resilience, send them to read, learn and understand more. They can find information at- www.ProjectHereNow.org. The information is teen-friendly and filled with ideas on how to get support.
About Pamela Schuller:
Pamela Schuller is the Program Manager for Here.Now., a Jewish teen mental-health initiative through Jewish Board and funded by UJA-Federation of New York. Pam holds a bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Youth Outreach through the Arts and a Master’s Degree in Child Advocacy and Policy. She is also an inclusion advocate, often working with communities to think about inclusion differently. Pam lives in New York City and for fun can be found around the city doing stand-up comedy.