Nurturing emotional, social and mental health at Jewish summer camp

Mental-health professionals at camp will encourage talking and help destigmatize issues at home, school or anywhere else where shining darkness on a difficult topic produces light.

A total of 32 Jewish camps from across North America have been awarded more than $1 million to address mental health at day and overnight camps. Credit:  Foundation for Jewish Camp.
A total of 32 Jewish camps from across North America have been awarded more than $1 million to address mental health at day and overnight camps. Credit: Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Rabbi Avi Orlow and David Phillips

“Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Many parents and educators are by now well aware that we find ourselves amid a mental-health crisis. What many have not stopped to consider, however, is just how much this is profoundly impacting our communities and camps.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • One in five youth aged 13 to 18 (21.4 percent) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during life. For children ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13 percent.
  • A little more than 50 percent of children ages 8-15 received mental-health services in the prior year.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, and the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.
  • One in five adults in the United States (18.5 percent) experience mental illness in a given year.

To forecast our current mental-health crisis is impossible. “It is shame wrapped in taboo inside of stigma,” and to continue to borrow from Winston Churchill, “… but perhaps there is a key.”

For children and staff with mental illness, summer camp represents a safe haven that is so important that they will do everything in their power not to compromise attendance. For some, attending represents an incentive to work hard and do their best to improve their mental health. But let’s be honest, camp is not stress-free; it is a living breathing community with all the drama, good and bad, that accompanies these settings. The elements that make camp such a powerful Jewish identity and socialization tool—from living and playing in close quarters to cliques and special events, late nights and lack of privacy—may delight, but can also distress and challenges one’s mental health.

For those who come with a mental-illness diagnosis to those who find themselves experiencing a situational episode, it can be overwhelming and scary. For those on the periphery, such as bunkmates and young adult staff, interacting or supervising a person who hurts on the inside can be confusing and potentially alarming. Ensuring a safe environment by working with an individual’s pre-existing conditions and those that manifest at camp is a complex service-delivery challenge.

Camp provides no magic shield that protects participants against pre-existing or newly manifested mental-health issues. Moreover, camps are ultimately responsible for providing quality, experienced mental-health services for these children and young adults just as they have done for decades when it comes to physical health needs. For example, anyone who attended camp is familiar with sick call, visits to the camp nurse for Band-Aids and coughs, etc. Such interactions are easily diagnosed and treated, with no stigma attached. How do we introduce the same paradigm and normalize the need for mental-health assistance at camp for those who hurt on the inside?

Professionals engaged in camps, schools and youth groups anecdotally confirm the research that diagnosed mental-health issues are pervasive. At the same time, we also acknowledge that there are  children and staff with no formal diagnosis who hide or feel ashamed by the feelings inside but are clearly in pain, and those who come to camp newly symptomatic, newly diagnosed or on a sanctioned (or otherwise) “medication vacation.” Worse yet, some parents do not share mental-health issues with the camp, as the perceived stigma is too overwhelming to contemplate, so the individual suffers in unnecessary silence.

There really is no choice but to engage, as the notion that we would ignore a child or staff member in distress is simply unacceptable. The same care we provide a physical injury or illness must be available to those who hurt inside their heads. Taking action has become a necessity. Foundation for Jewish Camp is stepping forward with “Yedid Nefesh: Nurturing Mental Emotional and Social Health at Jewish Camp,” made possible by a generous grant from the Marcus Foundation and based on an initiative developed by Immersive1st consulting.

The program was designed to engage two cohorts of 30 camps to introduce or increase the number of mental-health professionals on staff for the summer, promote positive mental health through new programming, and most importantly, help parents, campers and staff understand that mental health carries no stigma. While we believed that this seed program would address a profound need in the field, we were not prepared to get 92 (yes, 92!) camps apply.

And here lies the key. It is clear from the responses, the narrative content and subsequent conversations spurred by the application process that the simple act of putting the application out there that the grant has already had an impact. Addressing mental-health issues is now being spoken about more openly and more directly, and professionals now have an entree to speak with their boards about this topic. Placing mental-health professionals in camps will make dealing with and talking about issues a regular part of life, and by osmosis, help destigmatize these issues at home, school or anywhere else where shining darkness on a difficult topic produces light.

Our children, young adult staff and parents depend on us to provide a safe and healthy environment. Parents should applaud any camp that adds this layer of service; in fact, we encourage you to ask current or prospective camps exactly how they handle these issues. Parents have a role in normalizing the expectation of quality mental-health services at camp, in school and everywhere else. This grant will help ensure summer camps have the resources to deal with issues that present on an all-too-frequent basis and give staff members critical support when challenged by all the physical and emotional effort that is needed to care for other people’s children.

Over the course of time, this approach will almost certainly save lives, and we know that this step forwards is opening a necessary door of examination and discussion for the wider field of summer camp, as well as the rest of the Jewish communal world that serves in any way our youth, teens and young adults.

Rabbi Avi Orlow is the vice president of innovation and education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. David Phillips is principal of Immersive1st, a consulting practice specializing in fundraising, strategic planning and visioning, governance, program creation and implementation, and acute organizational analysis.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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