Healthy Camp, Healthy Campers: Mental Health Issues at Camp

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Camp can be a world unto its own. Campers can unplug from technology, forge new relationships, take on unfamiliar challenges. For staff, too, camp can be a welcome escape into the woods and wild. But mental health issues – particularly anxiety – can arise for campers and staff alike. On Tuesday, Maine Summer Camps, a non-profit serving more than 120 Maine member camps, hosted a Boston-area clinician who shared wisdom with camp administrators from all over Maine.

Robert B. Ditter, M.Ed., L.C.S.W., is a familiar face to camp personnel, and once again he imparted both knowledge and wit in a three-hour workshop at Portland’s Italian Heritage Center. The morning program, sponsored by Androscoggin Bank, brought together camp directors from a broad range of camps who all share the goal of fostering healthy staff and campers.

Anxiety is prevalent, Ditter reported. In fact, of the 22 camps he visited in 2016, all but one shared a story about staff member anxiety, he said. In addition, a 2015 survey of 215 camps revealed a 56 percent increase in mental health issues among staff.

To some degree, Ditter said, anxiety is a good thing. “It’s the brain’s way to get ready to do its best,” he said. But too much stress can be problematic. Fortunately, anxiety can be managed. “You can train your brain,” he said.

Ditter pinpointed a variety of causes for staff and camper anxiety. These include: the loss of “unstructured, non-scripted play;” pressure to perform; parental roles (either disconnection or over-involvement); and technology and social media.

Over the past 15 years, kids have become increasingly less engaged in free, unstructured, play, Ditter said. Indeed for many upwardly mobile families, such play is now seen as “frivolous,” he said. But spontaneous creative play, play “for no gain,” actually improves executive functioning – planning and problem solving skills. In fact, Ditter said, free play “inoculates kids against anxiety.”

Technology can also foster anxiety, he said, by promoting both superficial relationships and a lack of patience. Furthermore, youngsters reliant on their devices can actually develop an addiction to the dopamine release that occurs upon receiving a text or message. Ditter used a video to make the point that while there are laws around addictive substances like drugs and alcohol, technology is available to youngsters of all ages.

Camp can be an antidote, he said. Camp is “messy,” a place for working out relationships face-to-face and unplugged.

But both staff and campers need support if dealing with anxiety. Ditter set forth four “tenets” as strategy for stress management. Although he was speaking in the context of camps, the advice arguably has broader application – to parents, to teachers, to employers, to friends.

First, he said, it is essential to connect with the individual experiencing the anxiety. Too often, in their enthusiasm to help others with a particular stressor, camp staffers “make suggestions or give advice or try to intervene” before making a personal connection. That connection can be achieved through acknowledgment of the individual’s feelings and situation, as well as by acknowledging the person’s effort and intention. Only after making a connection can one successfully “redirect” the situation, Ditter said.

A second tenet involves addressing setbacks, Ditter said. By acknowledging the particular feeling the setback has created, and then by acknowledging the situation, a staff member can then normalize the experience before offering encouragement.

Connecting and normalizing are also keys to helping an anxious staff member or camper, Ditter said. After doing so, it is possible to “reframe and redirect” the situation. This is a time to remind the individual that nervousness and anxiety is simply the brain at work, Ditter said. Then comes the time to redirect by focusing on past successes. “Let’s think about how strong/capable you are,” Ditter advised telling an anxious staff member or camper.

Finally, Ditter pointed out that by switching from “empathy to compassion” individuals are in the best position to help others with their anxiety or stress. This involves recognizing that empathy is a normal response, as well as a reminder that “I am here and they are over there!” By operating from a place of compassion, individuals in the caretaker role will experience less distress themselves.

“If you shift to compassion, you might feel a little detached, but you are actually helping more,” Ditter said.

Parents often find themselves feeling distressed because they are in a place of empathy rather compassion, Ditter said. And the same can occur with staff, he said. Camp directors can give their staff members a “greater sense of purpose” by reminding them that although they have no control over their gut reaction, they can control their response to it.

Summer camp, as Ditter told the gathering on Tuesday, is a wonderful place for kids and young adults to learn about themselves, each other, and their world, through face-to-face interaction. But each camper and each staff member brings to the environment their own unique outlooks and attitudes and experiences. Through connection and compassion, camp directors and staff can not only bring about a better understanding of anxiety, but also give those experiencing it a sense of power and control in managing it.


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