Pandemic Summer: Supporting Teen Mental Health At Camp

By Leslie Rosen Stern

In a year unlike any other, the year 2020 will be linked forever with uncertainty, fear and risk. The pandemic, political strife, recognition of the country’s history of systemic racism, and the dangers to the planet from climate change present challenges for the entire country, if not the world.

Mental health challenges loom large, especially for adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable. With the onset of puberty, their bodies are flooded with physical, emotional, mental, and hormonal changes. They may have anxiety about the future, a fear of catching COVID-19, someone they love getting sick, and financial worries, especially if a parent has lost their job. It is a toxic mix primed for volatility.

As plans for camp 2021 start to take shape, it’s important to remember the effects of the pandemic on adolescent development and proactively implement strategies that anticipate the mental and emotional issues facing teens.

Camper Care

Jewish summer camps realize that the mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) issues that teens deal with during the academic year do not stop once summer break begins. Proactive camps have added camper care specialists to their summer teams. These specialists are trained to recognize mental health challenges and support teens as they navigate topics including body image, adolescent development, self-harm, gender identity, disordered eating, depression, social and generalized anxiety. In some camps, these wellness professionals are an integral part of the year-round staff.

Clearly camp leadership strives to create a healthy camp experience. In preparation for a pandemic summer, camps are investing in non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) such as hand washing stations, sanitizers, electrostatic sprayers, extractor fans, outdoor dining, and pod-housing. What other considerations might teens need this summer?

Adolescent Brains

During adolescence, the brain begins making space for new neural connections. It is during this vulnerable time that most of the major mental health challenges – of thought, mood, and anxiety – have their major onset. Teens come to camp at the height of these brain changes. This year, more than most, they are grappling with the loss of social opportunities, disruptions in routines, and the lack of safe options for stress relief.

The social isolation most teens are experiencing now is very real. Rigid safety protocols were put in place in high schools to promote social distancing and safer classroom instruction. Many high schools educate via hybrid or virtual set ups. Our teens’ academic experiences are further constrained by limited access to their school-based peers. Like many of us, they are experiencing pandemic fatigue and are frustrated by the social restrictions placed on them, making the anticipated return to camp all the more exciting. They crave their summer home and who they are in that space.

Proactive Mental Health Support

  • Socially and emotionally, teens are coming back to camp in a different place than when they left. Some moved from being a pre-teen at 13 to a full-on, acne-faced, hormonal 15-year old. They’ve gained two additional years in school, and their coursework is becoming more challenging. What information do camps need that may not be captured in the current health, intake and registration forms? It’s essential to encourage parents and teens to round out the data on how the pandemic has affected them in and outside of their home.
  • Camp is rooted in rituals and routine. These campers have missed a full summer of meaningful milestones. Before moving forward, acknowledge the sadness that comes with change. Encourage teens to create a new ritual to grieve and mourn what was lost in 2020.
  • Quarantine, stay at home orders, social distancing, and mask wearing has worn them down. Adolescents are social and hormonal beings. Revved up teens are going to be hungry for other beings to be with them, and will be eager to start hugging, high-fiving and touching each other. Beyond the whispers of summer crushes and first kisses, there are important conversations to be had about consent, body-love, body-image, gender identity, respect and risk. Statistically teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior, but the definition of ‘risky behavior’ has changed due to COVID-19. Knowing they will let their guard down at camp, because they’ve quarantined and followed the camp-bubble protocols, what can we do to inspire increased safety for everyone?
  • ‘Withdrawal’ from technology is real and will be felt more acutely than in the past. Teens turned to technology for FaceTime calls, late night Minecraft games and Fortnight tournaments in record numbers this year. Once at camp, they will be happy to be off-line and freed from Zoom classes. They may also be asked to give up their cell phones, the same phones that became lifelines of connection to their friends and the world. What does tech withdrawal look like now? What can we do proactively so that teens don’t experience this as yet another type of loss?
  • Summer 2021 will see a rise in separation issues. In the best of times, homesickness lasts a few hours during the first few days of camp, but in a pandemic summer, anxiety will present in teens without prior symptoms. Teens may continue to be fearful for the health of their family and older adults whom they love. Added limits to technology may exacerbate the uncertainty and fear. What systems can be put in place for comforting communications about life and the world outside camp? How are we building coping capacity in teen campers when separation and independent living were previously known to be hallmarks of camper success?

Typically, camp serves as a transitional space between one school year and the next. This summer we will need to be hyper-attentive to campers’ moods and feelings. We have an opportunity to break new ground this summer. Let’s do it so we successfully bridge what was in 2019 with what will be in 2021.

Leslie Rosen Stern, MA, MSW, is a leadership coach and teen camper care specialist, collaborating year-round with mission-driven organizations to train, support, and design strategies for teen success. She is a Principal at Meeting Your Mission, a firm dedicated to facilitating individual and organizational growth by providing strategic guidance to advance initiatives and increase community engagement.