End of summer youth mental health summit: Insights and opportunities  

As professionals working with and supporting camps and other youth-serving organizations (YSOs), many of us anticipated that this summer would see unprecedented challenges; not just because organizations were preparing to hold in-person programming during a pandemic, but also because the previous 16 plus months of isolation and uncertainty clearly left their mark on our youth. Many camps invested time, energy, and extra resources to prepare themselves and their staff to face mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health (MESSH) challenges this summer, and still, camp professionals reported a season unlike any other.  

At the end of August, BBYO’s Center for Adolescent Wellness and Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) brought together nearly 100 camp directors and mental health staff representing over 70 day and overnight camps and Israel travel programs. Attendees from Association of Independent Jewish Camps, BBYO, B’nei Akiva, Habonim Dror, JCC camps, Ramah, Reconstructing Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, Young Judaea and others, gathered to reflect on this summer, learn from the wins and challenges, and discuss how to support our youth moving forward.  

When it came to shared struggles, summit participants noted these as the top ones they encountered this summer:  

Increased frequency and severity of mental health challenges. Camps reported a significant increase in the mental health needs of campers and staff. Many camps needed more professional support to adequately respond to the volume of eating disorders, non-suicidal self-injuries, anxiety, stress related to identity expression, and other challenges community members faced.  Social anxiety and re-integration struggles. Social re-integration proved exhausting for campers and professionals alike. They had to renegotiate boundaries from the virtual to the physical world and learn to live together and be in physical spaces with one another. And often, just as they would settle in, camps would reach a COVID milestone (often related to testing results) which would change their COVID guidelines or expand their circle of contact. A changing sense of community left campers and staff facing ongoing re-integration stressors.  Missed milestones with lasting impacts. Social regression in some campers was expected this summer. For others, missed social milestones inhibited age groups from reaching the maturity or developmental stage exhibited by their near peers in previous years resulting in additional and unanticipated challenges.  Shifts in language. The language that teens and youth used to describe their own mental health challenges has shifted in a way that makes every incident feel dire and more stressful. More teens are using phrases like, “I don’t feel safe,” “panic attack,” “too much social energy,” or “X is not good for my mental health,” which causes a greater reaction and feelings of uncertainty from staff when trying to help.  Stakeholders beyond camp. In many instances, caregivers’ needs, anxiety, and stresses were greater this year and required more time and energy from camp staff to respond to and support them.  

Camps certainly prepared as best as they could in advance. Hundreds participated in Youth Mental Health First Aid and similar certifications. Over thirty camps spent the year as part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s first Yedid Nefesh cohort, investing in mental health professionals on their leadership teams who met throughout the summer. While there is much from this pandemic we would like to leave behind, camps’ planning paid off with some real wins including having qualified mental health professionals to respond to camper and staff needs thereby reducing the burden on camp directors, arranging physical spaces for mental health at camp to continue care conversations with therapists at home and provide environments to decompress, and initiating proactive programming to help campers build tangible skills to employ when stressed. Each of these changes positively impacted camps and their programs, helping staff and administrators better serve and support their campers. We expect that camps and youth organizations will double down on some of these changes and weave them into the fabric of their programming and structure moving forward. 

Based on these insights, here are five ways that youth movements, schools, camps, and other youth serving organizations (YSOs) can best support the young people in their care:  

Increased training and education. Camps noted that staff, at all levels, need more training to recognize and respond to mental health challenges and red flags, yet there is limited time and resources. This is not something specific just to camps. YSOs across the board need the ability to recognize and respond to these needs before youth are in crisis, and young people need training on how to help their peers and connect them to support. Additionally, camps need to have proactive policies and procedures in place to meet the growing needs of campers and staff.  Pipeline of qualified mental health professionals. Many camps hired mental health professionals this year. Having new staff with this high level of professional experience helped mitigate concerns and benefited camps during a summer of smaller, younger staff teams. Furthermore, have these professionals at camp allowed leadership to address more situations without being spread so thin. Similar to the model provided by the Yedid Nefesh initiative and BBYO immersive programs, camps and YSOs need funding for mental health professionals to support participants at in-person programming. Yedid Nefesh will also be offering MSW and PsyD graduate student internship placements at camps this summer, but partnerships for shared positions and year-round professional employment opportunities will be necessary in the future. Focus on staff wellness. Many year-round and seasonal professionals show signs of burnout, languishing, and compassion fatigue. Camps shared how personally their staff takes this work, even more so today than in the past. They recognize an ongoing need to create space for staff reflection time and show their staff how much they are valued, and that all staff (but especially young adults) need to be reminded of the positive impact they are making. It is vital that organizations do not focus solely on self-care but think beyond that to comprehensive wellness. Consider the ways scheduling, staffing models, capacity, physical structures, written policies, organizational culture, health and other benefits impact staff’s mental, emotional, social and spiritual health. Their well-being impacts their ability to care for youth and create enriching environments, and our professionals are role models for the participants in their care. Physical spaces and programming around mental health. Camps created new physical spaces for youth to relax in, while others designated private spaces for campers and staff to receive continued care with therapists using tele-health. On the program side, many opted for experiences focused on building resilience and addressing the social-emotional needs of participants. From mindfulness through fishing, to yoga and movement, to meditation sensory gardening and therapy animals, there was an increased focus on MESSH woven through programmatic and Jewish life this summer. These mental health focused spaces and programs will continue to prove necessary as adolescents show a growing level of interest in them. Cross-agency partnerships. To best meet the needs of our youth, it is vital that organizations come together and share resources instead of operating in silos. These and other forthcoming insights from camps this summer are relevant and integral for all organizations supporting youth. The partnership between Foundation for Jewish Camp and BBYO’s Center for Adolescent Wellness is just one example of how working together can lift up all of our communities.  

The challenges many adolescents are facing today did not appear overnight, but they have been exacerbated by the last two years of a global pandemic. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to grow and learn from the experiences had by camps this summer. We hope these insights can help youth-serving professionals and the local, regional and national ecosystems they support. These learnings need not lead us to crisis, but we cannot sit idly by either. Together, let us collaborate, explore creative partnerships, and create environments that are mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually supportive of where our youth are currently – and where they are going.  

Drew Fidler, LCSW-C, is the director of BBYO’s Center for Adolescent Wellness. Drew helps to ensure that BBYO and other youth-serving organizations are places where adolescents can thrive through?institutional best practices in health and?wellness. 

Jill Goldstein Smith is a senior program manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) where she oversees Yedid Nefesh: Nurturing Mental, Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Health (MESSH) at Jewish Camp (supported by the Marcus Foundation). Applications for Cohort 2 open in mid-October. She also works on other MESSH initiatives, leadership development and Jewish education projects, including FJC’s Cornerstone Fellowship. 

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