Managing mental health issues at summer camp
Camps are prepared to work with your child’s challenges
When parents send a child to residential summer camp, they picture their child looking like the kids in the camp brochure — suntanned, laughing, with an arm wrapped around a new best friend.
While this scenario could be true for many children, it’s not always the case for children who struggle with coping
or self-care skills.
Statistics show that one in four youths struggle with a mental health problem — varying from mild to severe — including anxiety and depression, ADHD or hyperactivity disorders, bipolar disorders and severe emotional swings, and even suicidal ideation.
If during the school year, your child has had difficulties making friends, regularly struggles with anxiety or depression, or has threatened self-harm or harm to others, their mental state will not magically improve just by sending them to camp. In fact, if the support, counseling, or therapy your child usually receives at school is gone, their mental health problems will likely be exacerbated.
Does this mean that if your child has a mental health concern, they can’t attend summer camp? Absolutely not! Camp directors know that the youth mental health environment has changed dramatically in recent years, and many are equipped to handle children with a variety of diagnoses and challenges.
Mental health challenges come in many forms. Often, camp staff must be ready to deal with a far-ranging spectrum of family dynamics, risk factors and behaviors, ranging from eating disorders and bullying to exposure to abuse, neglect and family substance abuse.
The camp experience can provide a fantastic environment for a child to find new coping tools and to learn how to navigate life’s challenges. Camp adventure programs build self-esteem and resilience, offer a chance to nurture strong relationships with peers and adults, and create opportunities to learn life skills that will bolster their social, emotional and physical health.
With a more informed awareness of the changing needs of campers, New Hampshire camps are focusing on finding innovative ways to better support campers.
For example, many camps now provide training for counselors in Mental Health First Aid programs. Summer staff learn to recognize the difference between typical, normal teenage angst and the warning signs that could signify the possibility of a full-blown mental health incident.
Additionally, many camps are hiring school psychologists and mental health professionals to live at camp throughout the summer session.
These professionals have the additional expertise and training required to decelerate a child’s anxiety, anger, or stress in the moment. With this training, they may be able to spot potential behavioral concerns or emotional issues before they escalate.
Campers in need of mental health counseling, day or night, can check in for support, just as they would at school with the school psychologist. Some camps will also arrange for a weekly or “as-needed” phone call to a home therapist or counselor.
If your child has a mental health challenge, how should you find and select the right camp to best support your child?
It’s important that parents research carefully what camps offer to find a program that will meet their child’s specific needs. There are also free camp search services that can help identify camps for consideration.
When speaking with a camp director, it’s vital that parents openly share their child’s previous or current mental health concerns so that staff are not surprised and are prepared to prevent incidents, recognize warning signs, and minimize or prevent potential problems on their child’s behalf. Be sure to ask the camp director about what types of mental health services are provided.
Two more tips:
If your child is receiving therapy or mental health support during the school year, be sure to notify the school psychologist or counselor before enrolling your child in a summer program. The school psychologist can convey the treatment plan to the camp psychologist so therapy continues during the summer months without interruption.
Be direct and honest with the camp administrator about your child’s mental health when you fill out the camp application. Your child is more likely to finish the summer successfully and experience all the benefits of residential camp that will help them thrive.
Kathy Kearns is a freelance writer and recently retired executive director of the Circle Program, a nonprofit organization that offers residential summer camp and year-round mentoring programs to underprivileged New Hampshire girls.