First aid for mental health
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First aid for mental health

Camps benefit from new emphasis on counselors detecting problems early

Counselors at Camp Ramah study guidebooks on Youth Mental Health First Aid Training.
Counselors at Camp Ramah study guidebooks on Youth Mental Health First Aid Training.

Before this camp season, Karen Legman Segal of Teaneck, director of camper care for Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, participated in an intensive program that offered new approaches to crisis intervention.

Ms. Segal — a longtime social worker who has worked at the camp for 23 consecutive summers in a variety of roles — was not sure at first that the camp needed the new program.

“I was asked over a year ago to participate, but I was a little hesitant,” Ms. Segal said. “I didn’t want a canned project to enter into camp. We already had a wonderful advisory system that provided emotional support for campers, parents, and counselors.”

Nevertheless, with an eye toward enhancing current techniques, camp leaders decided to pursue the invitation. And, Ms. Segal said, the Youth Mental Health First Aid Training she received “has given me new strategies and enhanced my perspective.”

Camp Ramah — together with the Union for Reform Judaism’s Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Mass., and Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, N.Y. — is part of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Mental Health & Wellbeing at Camp pilot program, designed to bring YMHFAT training to counselors and staff at several New York-area overnight camps. Training was provided in partnership with Westchester Jewish Community Services and included such topics as crisis management, active listening, and communication skills.

Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood, the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s director, noted that the project is supported by the Neshamot Fund — Women’s Impact Philanthropy of UJA-Federation of N.Y. He hopes the experience of the pilot camps will serve as a model for other camps in their respective movements.

“Camps have solid protocols set up for addressing issues, but there is still much room for engaging the entire camp staff in creating caring, supportive communities,” Mr. Fingerman said. “The pace of change in the world is affecting everyone, including campers and counselors, and so any tools to help camps and their professional teams deal with these issues is a great service we can provide.” In the past, he said, counselors have reported a lack of confidence in giving this kind of help. The mental health first aid program “helps them learn to pay attention to small details and heighten their awareness when people are struggling.

“Counselors really serve as role models for campers,” he continued. “They’re on the first line, like first responders. We’re giving them the skills and language to identify when to escalate the issue, when to bring it to senior staff and professionals. But it’s also happening to counselors themselves. We’re helping them identify and respond to their own issues and those of their peers. It’s self-care.”

Ms. Segal takes great care with the Ramah staff, “making sure they have enough sleep, have personal time, and have structured time with older staff members,” Mr. Fingerman said. “These are important lessons that benefit the whole camp, beyond mental health.”

The camp is supportive in other ways as well. “Over the last three or four years, more kids are coming in who have had lots of therapy,” Ms. Segal said. “During the summer, we often allow them to continue their sessions with therapists,” whether by phone or by FaceTime. “It’s not just in a crisis, but as a routine measure for their lives. Some camps wouldn’t do this.”

Ms. Segal said that the National Alliance on Mental Illness has found that one in five 13- to 18-year-olds in the United States has a serious mental illness, and that suicide is the third leading cause of death in 10- to 24-year-olds. Agreeing that those statistics are rather shocking, she said she hasn’t seen that reflected in camp, but, then again, “our range is much wider,” with many campers falling below those ages.

Ms. Segal said that the longtime Ramah system for handling mental health concerns has functioned successfully. Ramah Berkshires divides campers by age into eight edot, or divisions, and it hires four advisers — each responsible for two divisions — who provide emotional support for staff and campers. In daily meetings, advisers talk about bunk dynamics, social dynamics, and problem-solving. This year’s team of advisers includes a social worker, a psychologist, and two educators.

Problems do arise — campers not getting along or, in the older edot, campers “figuring out who they are, figuring out their gender identity, and dealing with sexuality,” Ms. Segal said. “We train counselors to deal with this as well, although they may need the advisers’ help with that.”

“It’s good for counselors to have this training, not to become clinicians but to have the skills to distinguish between typical and atypical behavior,” she added.

The camp offered YMHFAT to 25 counselors as well as to division heads.

Because the program was created for schools, the standard training module contains scenarios based solely on school situations. Ramah added its own camp scenarios. Ms. Segal said the core teachings of the program— called ALGEE, an acronym for “Assess for risk of suicide or harm; Listen in a nonjudgmental manner; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help; and Encourage self-help and other support strategies” — is “an effective transferable skill to present to camp counselors that can ensure they are equipped to recognize the signs of crisis, take appropriate action, and refer to mental health professionals as needed.”

Has the training made a difference? “It’s still early in the season,” Ms. Segal said, but she noted that one counselor recently approached her because he saw a change in mood in one of his campers. “We empower the counselors to go back with the feeling that we have their backs,” she said.

The camp plans to continue the program next year, the camp’s director, Ethan Linden, said. “I think the training has made counselors more aware of potential mental health issues and more willing to address those issues with their supervisors.” And “adding a level of certification and knowledge is always important,” Ms. Segal said. “It will also encourage our counselors to look at themselves. And when they’re in college, it will help them pick up signals from their friends.”

Ms. Segal reads applications from each family before a camper is accepted, “but not everything is exposed,” she said. “But where it is exposed, I can go in and talk with the parents before the season. We’re not afraid of these issues. They’re all around our community. Campers see therapists more frequently than ever before for issues from learning disabilities to social anxiety. Schools are dealing with it too.”

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