Holy work that works: A holistic approach to mental health
As children and caregivers pushed through spring, and the one-year anniversary of this global period of upheaval, summer camp stood as a bright spot for hundreds of thousands of children and young adults – and their families – marking a monumental transition back to communal life.
Citing a staggering 45% increase this year in the number of self-injury and suicide cases in 5- to 17-year-olds compared to the same period in 2019 — the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association recently declared a national state of emergency in childhood and adolescent mental health.
As children and caregivers pushed through spring, and the one-year anniversary of this global period of upheaval, summer camp stood as a bright spot for hundreds of thousands of children and young adults – and their families – marking a monumental transition back to communal life. Jewish camps provide a place for campers and staff to feel safe, explore and be uniquely empowered to embrace their whole selves – to grow into their best selves. But even this utopian-like setting isn’t free from struggles. Gone are the days of the “camp bubble” where folks could leave their worries at the gates.
Long before COVID-19, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) recognized and began tracking the evolving and growing complexity of mental, emotional, social and spiritual health (MESSH) needs and challenges in society. With a visionary gift from The Marcus Foundation in 2019, FJC launched the Yedid Nefesh (beloved soul) initiative — a multi-faceted, whole-person approach to wellness at camps for both individuals and communities. With serendipitous timing, Yedid Nefesh has provided financial and programmatic support for day and overnight camps during the pandemic, including the addition of over 30 experienced mental health professionals to the field, nearly 50 young staff members returning to their summer roles with a mental health internship under their belt and over 300 staff members who participated in mental health training. The impact was dramatic – and necessary.
Every week from June through August, FJC met with and collected data from mental health professionals on the ground at camps. Their reports shared many ways this summer brought joy to thousands of campers and surfaced the sizable increase in the frequency and intensity of eating disorders, non-suicidal self-injuries, anxiety around social reintegration, stress related to identity expression, social regression due to missed milestones and suicidal ideation. And yet, many camps rose to the occasion of supporting campers through this transitional period. When we surveyed over 12,000 parents representing over 90 overnight camps and 25 day camps across North America, parents of children who attended camps participating in Yedid Nefesh, with dedicated, experienced mental health professionals on staff, consistently reported higher satisfaction with their camps overall and over 5% higher ratings related to their camp’s ability to create environments that supported the mental, emotional, social and spiritual well-being of their children.
Having a trained professional specifically focused on mental health also benefited staff members, including teen and college-aged counselors. Of the over 2,000 day and overnight camp staff members surveyed, more than 70% of them reported seeking and receiving mental and emotional support at camp this summer. Camp mental health professionals supported staff well-being and also coached and empowered them to support their campers by building their own interpersonal skills, growing their confidence, and strengthening their resiliency. Staff at Yedid Nefesh camps reported higher satisfaction (nearly 20% higher at day camps) with how their camps “provided strategies, tools and resources to increase [their] own well-being and resilience.” As such, Yedid Nefesh camps were able to create communities where staff were nearly 10-15% more likely to feel “supported and listened to at camp.”
When young staff feel supported, they are better able to cope with challenges that arise and are better equipped to support their campers and create more positive camp experiences for everyone. Recognizing this interconnectedness is also great news for their camps who, in addition to dealing with COVID-19 and this mental health crisis, also faced a staffing shortage this summer resulting in subsequent staff burnout like the field has never seen before.
The impact reached beyond camps’ gates as well. “It dawned on us this summer that we’re not just for the camper… We’re working with our community as a family system. Our parents are also our clients, our grandparents are also our clients… [The Yedid Nefesh grant] gave us a holistic approach to camp and to campers. So, I think that the mental health component of this allowed us to help entire family systems,” said Sheira Director-Nowack, director of Camp Havaya.
This work is about community and well-being, but it is also about saving lives – the highest priority in Judaism. It is well-known that having a trusted adult in your life is one of the most effective protective factors to suicide prevention. When we asked staff if they had people at camp who they could turn to who could help them through challenges, positive responses were 6% higher at Yedid Nefesh camps, where a mental health professional could either be that person or support others to hold space for their peers. But there is more work to be done to get this number to 100% across all camps.
Even before the pandemic, nearly 100 camps applied to participate as one of the 30 camps planned for in the first cohort of Yedid Nefesh. With much gratitude for the generosity and foresight of The Marcus Foundation, we are reviewing applications for a second cohort of this initiative, and we’ve seen similar interest this time around.
There is, of course, more work to be done and learning to be amassed. We are actively looking for partners in hiring and developing a talent pipeline for camp mental health professionals. Counselors continue to be concerned by the growing number of mental health responsibilities they are encountering. And communication with caregivers must be fortified with more trust so camp staff can be better prepared for supporting the children in their care.
Camp communities are fertile ground for people to discover themselves – and sometimes that is messy and often scary. Seeing, listening, embracing the joy and messiness – this work has always been foundational to our camp communities. If there was ever any question that this communal mental health crisis requires more from us, this declaration of a national emergency in children’s mental health should be a wake-up call. After all, we are not talking about the experiences of a few. Each of us has experienced upheaval, change and loss in our own lives. Not one of us has been spared from the fallout of this global pandemic. After all, we are not talking about the experiences of a few. Each of us has experienced upheaval, change and loss in our own lives. Not one of us has been spared from the fallout of this global pandemic.
We are about to enter Kislev, the darkest time of year, and we cannot wait for spring to bring about the light again – we must create it together. The anecdotal evidence and quantitative data light the path ahead. This is no longer a want or an extra nice-to-have. Creating embedded and sustainable MESSH support systems that destigmatize the loss and grief that come with life, prioritize training across our communities, and invest in qualified mental health professionals: this works. We have the blueprint for effective change. Together, we can build thoughtful, caring Jewish communities that serve as sources of warmth and light in the darkness.
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). She also works on other MESSH initiatives, leadership development and Jewish education projects, including FJC’s Cornerstone Fellowship. Jill believes camp helps cultivate people who make the world a better place by living out the values that make caring communities.
None of this would be possible without the generosity and partnership of The Marcus Foundation.
The work of Yedid Nefesh, data analysis and this article would not be possible without many FJC colleagues, including FJC’s Jennifer Horn, Aimee Lerner, Rabbi Avi Orlow, Nila Rosen, Liora Bernstein, Gaby Schoenfeld, Julie Finkelstein, others at FJC, the Yedid Nefesh Advisory Group and the camp leadership, mental health professionals and camp counselors impacted by Cohort 1.