What I Learned As A Camp Psychologist

by Marisa Mahler, Psy.D
Originally Published: 
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This summer, I tried something different. In addition to my private practice, I decided to accept a position as a psychologist at a large local day camp. I’ve always been a “camp person” and loved the idea of joining a Camper Care team made up of mental health professionals.

But I noticed that when I informed others that I was working as a camp psychologist, they generally reacted in one of two ways. Either a polite but skeptical, “Hmm…interesting. I didn’t know camps had that,” or excitement, remarking on how they wished a mental health presence had existed back when they were campers.

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The data is clear. Current research overwhelmingly demonstrates the need for mental health professionals to work with children year-round. Approximately 15 million children struggle with a mental health disorder and recent research from the CDC finds that 1 out of 7 children aged 2 to 8 years have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Clearly many more children and families are impacted by mental illness than one might think, and a real need exists for more comprehensive, integrated mental health care.

But despite that information, despite the increase of hearing the term “mental health” in mainstream media, despite the VERY substantial progress in awareness, dissemination of research and acceptance of mental health issues, a double standard still remains when it comes to physical versus mental health. We speak freely about high blood pressure but not depression. We ask for referrals for pediatric dermatologists on social media yet search for therapists in hushed tones with only our most trusted friends.

So it comes as no surprise that some might be confused by the idea of a camp psychologist or even think it is unnecessary. And I understand the skepticism. To some, this position sounds like a nice but unnecessary luxury like a heated pool or having organic produce served at lunch. But I learned this summer that it’s extremely important and impactful for camps to employ mental health professionals.

What if having a camp psychologist was given the same priority as having a camp doctor? Most parents expect for there to be a camp doctor or nurse and are comforted by having a medical professional on site. It wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be acceptable to simply have a first aid kit on hand. Yet when it comes to issues regarding mental health, the same attention is not given. My experience this summer only strengthened my knowledge and belief that it is as essential for the campers and staff to have a professional on site for mental health concerns that inevitably arise during the summer months.

So what kinds of issues typically come up at camp? After all, isn’t camp a happy place full of lanyard, kickball and bug juice? The answer is a LOT. There are behavioral issues, social emotional struggles, group dynamics and other more specific personal issues. While camp is designed to be a fun, carefree environment, it is also less structured than a school setting, which can be challenging for many children, especially those with sensory issues who have a lower threshold for overstimulation.

Summer is also inherently a time of transitions. Many children are switching schools or moving homes and family dynamics might be shifting such as an older sibling going away to college or parents getting a divorce, all of which can create stress and anxiety.

Another relevant factor is the short-lived nature of camp which doesn’t allow for a desirable transition period as compared to the school year where children and adolescents have a few months to ease into things and accommodate to their new routine. Having a professional who can help the child successfully navigate this transition is critical so that they don’t miss out on a significant chunk of their camp experience.

By helping them adjust more successfully, children are free to enjoy and benefit from their camp experience where they learn life skills, independence and develop meaningful relationships.

My work with the campers in this type of environment was a new experience for me and was so gratifying. One camper, Sam,* made me feel I was making an impact early on in the summer. Sam was brought to me by his counselor because he had a rough morning; he had gotten into a conflict with Evan* on the bus and was acting out once he arrived at camp.

He approached my “office” (imagine the camp version of that) initially guarded and posturing. But the more I was able to engage him, the more relaxed he became and opened up about how his feelings were hurt and how the conflict started. I understood and validated his feelings and we discussed coping skills he could use when he feels hurt or frustrated. We reviewed bus behavior and then he returned to his bunk.

Usually that’s where it ends, but occasionally I am given the gift of some follow up. The following week Sam* approached me with a smile and excitedly reported that a different situation came up during swimming and he felt frustrated and used one of the coping strategies we discussed! He was so proud of himself (rightfully so!).

Without a staff psychologist, counselors too can find themselves in an unfair position of helping their campers work through things for which they are simply not qualified. I think back to my own childhood experiences in camp where a Camper Care professional would have been crucial but didn’t exist: worried friends who left camp early to be with a sick parent, friends who lost grandparents during camp, and times when as a counselor I needed guidance to counsel my campers (even though as a teenager I’m certain I thought I knew everything!).

Another dimension of my job was acting as a resource to the camp staff, essentially supporting them so that they could best support the children and adolescents they were caring for. My position served as a great convenience to parents because it enabled certain issues to be addressed and resolved at camp that may otherwise have resulted in a child being sent home or struggling in a more significant way. This provides children an opportunity to strengthen their resilience through developing coping skills, allowing them to work through a struggle and return confidently to their peers (And who wouldn’t want to be spared a trip to pick up their child in the middle of the day?).

Before camp even started there was a week of training for the counselors and staff. As I was addressing a large group of high school students, one counselor raised her hand and asked, “How do you know if a child is having a mental breakdown?” Although her wording was a bit dramatic, I was glad she asked because it gave me the opportunity to discuss emotional regulation and how every child (and adult) struggles, in different ways, to regulate themselves at times.

I reframed the question a bit and added the importance of coming from a place of empathy and explained that no child feels good about “losing it” in front of their bunk. Even though their behavior may feel confrontational or be difficult to manage, this is not a good place for them to be. I posed the question to the group about how they would feel about breaking down in school because they got a bad grade or a friend excluded them from something or they were just really tired from staying up too late. Needless to say, they totally got the point. All it took was a bit of context with a focus on compassion, which would hopefully increase their sensitivity and understanding towards their campers.

Once camp began, my job included dealing with the myriad of issues that arose which need to be addressed in an immediate and effective way in order to keep things running smoothly and ensure that our campers had a great summer. This is important for ALL kids but for some it is essential and defining for their personal growth and identity development. For the kids who struggle ten months a year in an academic setting, camp offers a completely different environment where they have the potential to thrive.

One of the most beautiful aspects of my job was being part of a team whose purpose was to meet every child’s individual needs, oftentimes extending beyond camp. By communicating with parents, a child’s outside therapist or SEIT, I acted as a bridge between camp and home with strategies that could be implemented in different environments to help kids learn and grow. Speaking with parents and sharing helpful information empowers the entire family and helps to position their child for a successful year ahead.

And maybe most importantly, by meeting children where they are at and giving them tools to navigate their individual challenges, I enabled them to have FUN! And after all, isn’t that what camp is all about?

*All names have been changed to maintain confidentiality

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