While the COVID-19 pandemic has given summer camps ample opportunity to practice keeping campers safe from illness and looking after their physical health, are those same camps also watching over their campers’ mental and emotional health?
Baltimore’s Child takes a closer look at what camps are doing to guide your children emotionally and physically through a stressful time.
Return to Normal?
Emily Stern, chief programming officer of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, says that the current nature of COVID-19 restrictions and safety precautions around it are keeping J Camps’ plans for the summer of 2022 somewhat fluid, specifically regarding health and safety issues. That said, staff are looking toward a programmatic lineup more in sync with pre-pandemic times, potentially including activities like field trips.
Similarly, Talia Rodwin, assistant director of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, explained in an email that her camp is still evaluating the impact COVID-19 may have on the camp’s program this coming summer. Once staff have more information, it will be up to their COVID committee to determine what protective measures will be needed.
Ben Butanis, director of marketing and development at Beachmont Christian Camp, said in an email that his camp is working closely with local and state experts and authorities to make sure the camp is following safety guidelines based on current scientific data. He adds that some pandemic-era policies will likely continue even after the pandemic ends. These policies include the shift to smaller group sizes, since the camp found they lead to stronger relationships with better experiences.
Increased Aggression, Anxiety and Depression
According to Stern, J Camps had noted a higher frequency and volume of mental health challenges during the summer 2021 camp session among campers and staff.
“Like a number of other camps and programs for kids, we saw last summer a higher frequency of needs of our young (campers),” says Stern, an Eldersburg resident. “They jumped developmental milestones without socialization and feedback. We saw that play out at camp over the summer.”
“With the pandemic, kids and really everyone went through a period of time at home where they weren’t able to get feedback when they were developing,” Stern continues. “When that happens, it can come out in sometimes positive ways, but at camp, it came out in some ways that were difficult as well, like increase(s) in anxiety, physical aggression and things that were harder for kids to be in a group and socialize for an extended period of time that they hadn’t had to do in years.”
Staffers at Habonim Dror Camp Moshava had also noted increasing levels of anxiety and depression in young people, although preliminary research suggests the trend may be reversing itself, says Rodwin.
“One particular camper reported new depression symptoms that we were unable to provide support for at camp,” says Rodwin. “We worked with that camper and their parents to determine that leaving camp early to seek professional support would be the safest path.
“It was sad for the camper to leave but was a very mutual decision between camp and the family,” Rodwin continues. “Since camp, they have received support and are excited to return to camp this coming summer in a healthier state of mind.”
Rodwin stresses that mental illness has always had a presence at camp programs, as it has had a presence everywhere else. She took reassurance in what she saw as a cultural shift that is destigmatizing mental illness, allowing for more open discussions on the subject.
Butanis believes campers are going through the same types of mental and emotional issues that everyone else has been dealing with, noting higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress from both groups.
“We had a particular camper who spent most of last summer with us and tended to be disruptive and misbehave,” says Butanis, a Kingsville resident. “One of our counselors spent some time talking with the camper and asked what was going on. As it turns out, the camper’s home situation was less than ideal, and the camper was very upset about it.
“It provided an opportunity for our counselor to bond with the camper over some shared experiences, help teach the camper how to deal with emotions in a healthier way and, ultimately, to work through some of those challenges,” Butanis adds.
Safeguards New and Old
In response to these increasingly frequent mental health challenges, J Camps is working on a new “camp care team” for the summer 2022 session, says Stern. While in past years, J Camps has had a single staff member focused on this area, this coming summer will be the first time J Camps has had multiple staff members dedicated to providing mental health services. While Stern expects the team to include more than two individuals, J Camps is still determining exactly how many.
Stern expects the work of the camp care team to begin before the start of the summer session. She explains that one of the forms the campers’ families typically complete is a “camper profile form.” She anticipates members will proactively reach out to caregivers should staff learn of any particular needs and set up plans to support these campers.
Once the summer session begins, Stern anticipates the camp care team will be involved in supporting campers who are struggling in social situations, dealing with anxiety or having trouble with following directions or keeping their hands to themselves. This support could include campers so young that they lack prior experience being in social situations.
“While we don’t know what the summer is going to bring, we know that we want to be prepared one way or the other and make sure that we’re here to help every kid meet with success at camp with any of the resources that we can provide,” Stern says.
Likewise, Habonim Dror Camp Moshava plans to hire a full-time mental health professional to support the mental health needs of the staff and campers, says Rodwin. While this staff addition will be a first for the camp, Habonim Dror Camp Moshava staff are already trained in child development and mental and emotional health concerns.
By contrast, Beachmont Christian Camp is not currently planning a separate program focusing on mental or emotional health. Butanis explains that “many of those focuses are already built into our existing programs.”
Counselors at Beachmont Christian Camp receive training before the summer session on how to interact and connect with their campers, Butanis says. He adds that staff are expected to get to know each child and go to a program manager if mental or emotional situations warrant greater attention.
“For example, we have countless children who are anxious about getting into the pool for the first time each summer,” Butanis says. “Through targeted efforts of encouragement, we hear time and time again from parents who can’t believe how well their children are able to swim at the end of their time at camp.”
Should J Camps’ new camp care team be judged successful, Stern expects that it could remain for the foreseeable future.
“I think this is a good first step that we’re making this year, and one that I see that we’re putting an investment in for camp for years to come,” says Stern.
A Place To Be Themselves
Stern is clear about what she views as the positive benefits campers gain when attending a summer camp program.
“I think camp is a place where it can provide a really amazing outlet for kids to get to learn, explore, create and make friends, and do it in a place that is open, inclusive, welcoming and where they’re supported,” says Stern. “School is a place where they’re held to academic standards, and while they may be in a supportive environment for some, camp is a place where kids can relax and be themselves.
“And I think it’s a really important experience for kids to have,” Stern continues. “It is something I hope many parents give their kids this summer.”