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Counseling the counselors
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Counseling the counselors

Jewish camps take lead in supporting well-being of staff

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

A staff engagement supervisor is available to aid counselors at Camp Harlam. (Photos courtesy URJ Camp Harlam)
A staff engagement supervisor is available to aid counselors at Camp Harlam. (Photos courtesy URJ Camp Harlam)

Last summer at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., a counselor engaged in self-harm. After a brief hospital stay, both the staffer and the camp administration agreed that the counselor should go home.

“The safety of kids is our top priority,” said camp director Lisa David. “Counselors must be able to function in their jobs.”

Along with their hiking boots and guitars, counselors, like campers, are bringing their mental health challenges to summer camp. As reported in a recent NJJN story (“When depression goes to camp,” June 28), camps are beginning to offer Mental Health First Aid Training to prepare counselors to interact with children under their care who have mental health issues. Camp directors are also growing increasingly savvy about screening potential employees, offering supports and accommodations for such staff members, and managing those mental health needs with the staffers’ primary responsibility: ensuring camper safety.

Anxiety and depression among teens and college-age students, the demographic for most counselors, is on the rise.

“We know some mental health issues begin to show themselves when kids are 18, 19, and 20,” said Rabbi Ethan Linden, director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.

But how many accommodations are too many, and how selective should they be when screening potential staff?

“The challenge all of us have at camp is finding the fine line between wanting to support staff in their own struggles, and knowing staff are here to do a job,” said Rabbi Eliav Bock, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Rockies.

Over 18 percent of adults (ages 18 and up) in the United States, or nearly one in five, has a mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For young adults, those 18-25 and most likely to be among camp counselors, the figure is slightly higher, at 22 percent.

There is limited data on how often staff experience a mental health crisis at camp, according to Linda Erceg, a registered nurse who chairs the American Camping Association’s (ACA) Healthy Camps Committee. But she believes it is a pervasive problem. “I know it happens because camp directors are always asking how can we screen staff more effectively,” she told NJJN.

“The last thing we want is someone so emotionally compromised that they can’t care for the kids.”

Three years ago the ACA surveyed camp professionals about changes in the mental, emotional, and social health profile of staff. (ACA uses the acronym MESH for this area of camper and staff health.) Erceg said the results indicated that staff reported either no change or an increase in anxiety and depression. Regarding those who reported an increase, she said, “Having the survey means we now have data that drives what we thought we were seeing and we can address it.”

She added that the most common diagnosis among camp staff include anxiety, depression, and ADHD. But staffers are also coming, in some cases, with different kinds of adverse childhood events.

For example, one current Camp Harlam counselor once had a traumatic experience riding a bus. Now during camp outings, the staffer is permitted to ride in the car that drives ahead of the bus and leads it to the destination.

David, a social worker by training with 15 years of camp experience and five at Camp Harlam, is prepared to offer “reasonable” accommodations like this. “It could be as simple as someone who needs more sleep to be productive and healthy,” she said. “If that’s all it takes, we’re willing to do that.”

Camp Harlam even created a new position, staff engagement supervisor, to help with such matters. “It’s another way to look out for the well-being of the staff,” she said.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) plans to collect data about how many Jewish camps around the country have such a professional dedicated to the staff, according to Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow, vice president of program and innovation at FJC. He added that his organization is also seeking funding to support and expand mental health training for camp staff.

“The safety of kids is our top priority,” said URJ Camp Harlam director Lisa David.

Bock, David, and other camp directors have become increasingly proactive in screening candidates. In this and other ways, camps like Ramah in the Rockies and Camp Harlam are among national pioneers, or as Erceg put it, “shining stars.” She estimates that the focus on both the hiring process and providing accommodations has started to gain traction among other camps nationally over the last three years.

Creating a job description that lays out the essential functions of the job can help narrow the pool of candidates, eliminating those who are basically unfit, said Erceg. And having a skilled interviewer to ask probing follow-up questions is the other key part of hiring.

David interviews every potential staff member every year, no matter how many summers they have spent at camp, either as a camper or counselor. She asks questions that can draw out underlying issues and necessary accommodations, such as if there’s anything that might keep a prospective counselor from performing essential aspects of the job. And when an applicant does disclose a mental health challenge, she said there is no diagnosis or behavior that would automatically disqualify the candidate. (“That would be discriminatory,” she said.) Rather, she assesses whether they have the coping strategies necessary to be successful.

Bock uses the interview to elicit candidates’ coping strategies. “I ask kids, ‘How do you react in finals?’ ‘How are you under pressure?’” He pointed out that mental health issues are not always obvious. “Some people who are incredibly high functioning and look to be successful in all sorts of metrics — having a job, getting As in school — when you start talking to them, you find out they might be struggling.”

The bottom line for David, Bock, and other camp directors is that as much as they want to be supportive, counselors are hired to do a job. And while they are willing to offer reasonable accommodations, camps will not provide staff with direct therapy.   

“If you are someone who needs that level of support you can’t be on our staff,” Bock said.

“One of my messages to staff is that if you don’t have a mental health toolkit — a series of coping mechanisms to deal with stressful situations — you cannot work as a camp counselor,” Bock added. “It would be a dangerous job for you.”

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