We are experiencing a shift in the landscape of mental, emotional, and social health (MESH). Even 10 years ago, children and teens participated in more play and personal interaction without the pressures of constantly being connected through the internet and mobile devices. The current digital age has shifted the focus of youth from interacting physically to engaging remotely. In addition, the COVID pandemic created significant difficulties for youth to be together in a physical space. Even now, more than two years later, we find ourselves questioning our capacity to engage, travel, and participate in gatherings with others. Through all of these compounding factors, research has identified stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, frustration, and emotional regulation issues in our youth and young adults (CDC, 2021; Panchal et al., 2021).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a report detailing a study of 7,700 adolescents (CDC, 2021). The data revealed that “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to erode students’ mental well-being.” According to Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC, the teen data echoes a cry for help (Rico, Brener, & Thornton et al., 2021). During the CDC study (2021), almost 20 percent of youth reported seriously contemplating suicide.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported approximately 18.1 percent of the adult population (those 18 years and older) and 25.1 percent of adolescents (13–18 years) have anxiety challenges regularly (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2021).
The Alliance for Camp Health (ACH) conducted COVID-19 research in 2020 and again in 2021 that identified MESH challenges at camp. Campers had delays in understanding social cues and emotional regulation challenges, while staff were more open about their anxiety yet could not identify self-care strategies (ACN, 2021).
As individuals and as a whole society, we have experienced stress and adversity in a way we never have before. To live life as we have done so historically has been impossible. This is the essence of our current lived experiences. We must now identify the impact of secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, and burnout — both in the camp setting and beyond.
Let’s consider these potential MESH impacts.
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) can occur when you are exposed to the adversity of others and subsequently develop your own relative emotional responses (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, n.d.). Because of the caring nature of camp, we open the door for more STS in staff (counselors and health-care staff) who walk with youth through MESH challenges. Listening to repeated stories of adverse childhood events, emotional stress, and unhealthy interactions can lead to STS in those working diligently to nurture and care for others at camp.
Vicarious trauma (also known as compassion fatigue) is a process of change that happens because we care about individuals who have been hurt, and we feel committed or responsible to them for the pain that has marked their lives. Also known as the “cost of caring,” this process is the “emotional residue of exposure” and ultimately can change the worldview of those serving in camp roles. Being aware of this potential impact is an essential action in managing our own well-being (American Counseling Association, n.d.), as well as that of the members of our camp family.
Burnout — a process that involves gradual exposure to job strain and may result in exhaustion, detachment, and feelings of cynicism — is an additional concern (John Hopkins Medicine, n.d.). We have not only been living with uncertainty, but also with the societal and environmental impact of delayed and complex interactions. When we understand the nature of stress and uncertainty, we are better equipped to effectively nurture and support interactions with those in our circles.
Secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, and burnout happen because you care about people. We want to remind you that you are not alone.
At camp, we have a unique opportunity to participate in trauma stewardship. Trauma stewardship is a practice grounded in the idea that both joy and pain are realities of life (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk, 2009). Through this stewardship, we can support healthy modes of operation and engagement that allow us to be fully present, which is essential for our well-being and personal development and one of the greatest values of the camp setting. We want to walk with individuals through emotional experiences and practice compassion for both the individual and ourselves.
We understand that camp is a unique space where we have the opportunity to create safe, developmental experiences for youth to grow and learn (Garst et al., 2013; Seal & Seal, 2011). As participants enter the camp space, they bring the pressures and challenges linked to their experiences and identities, reinforcing the need for camps to develop skills to support one another (Foster & McCabe, 2015; Johnson et al., 2011). Camp offers key features and activities that can help staff, youth, and young adults navigate life.
Caring Out Loud
The Search Institute (2020) has done significant work in the area of relationship building and youth development. A key foundational activity outlined is the ability and willingness to express caring. Although this could occur naturally, if youth do not have caring encounters during childhood, they may not understand how to really show concern for others (Search Institute, 2020). Camp creates the opportunity to model some of those behaviors through our open and visible caring actions and language we share with one another.
Ask yourself, “How do I know when someone cares about me? How do I know when I am valued?” Our humanness creates a desire for belonging and value. Each of us want to know that we matter to someone at some time. Camp staff and campers can create a culture of dependability, warmth, and encouragement by just being present and listening. What we must consider is that both being present and listening take time. So, if your camp schedule is full of activities and movement, it may be difficult to find time to just “be” and share life stories and experiences. Consider how to factor in opportunities and/or time to express caring and communication with one another. Sharing happens at the speed of trust, and trust takes time. Listening to others helps them know that they can be loved and cared for while suffering or in pain (Lipsky & Burk, 2009).
During the days of COVID isolation, youth spent hours playing video games or making TikTok videos, challenging themselves to do better, to do more, and to overcome previous failures. Camp also represents the opportunity for individuals to challenge themselves, reflect on failures, and learn from mistakes. We can provide positive feedback and support when a camper is faced with uncertain situations. When we ask campers to participate in new or different activities, we expect less-than-perfect performance. This is key to growth and personal change. When campers don’t reach their goal (such as reaching the top of the climbing wall, hitting a bullseye in archery, or completing a swim test), we can provide opportunity and language that allows them to express their feelings of fear and frustration. As a number of NFL coaches have insisted, “We don’t learn from our wins, we learn from our losses.” How might we use those losses or struggles to benefit future growth for individuals?
While demonstrating a caring posture for others at camp, we can encourage campers and staff to keep getting better (Search Institute, 2020). Better at what? Better at moving toward their best selves. We want to create some “stretch” and move people out of their comfort zones — often called “challenge by choice” — which is a great personal development tool. Camp is an ideal place to do this type of work as we ask youth to try different and new experiences (such as archery, high ropes, riflery, water sports). These stretch activities can encourage participants to step from the familiar and comfortable into areas of growth and learning, expanding their confidence for future opportunities.
Growth through challenge promotes resiliency. Resilience is navigating our lives with truth and integrity (Gilboa, 2021). We often talk about resilience in terms of “getting back up again” when we fail, but this skill is not effective unless done with integrity and truth. Rising from failure at the expense of another is not resilience, and trauma can continue if resilience is not encouraged and supported in effective ways. Camp is a great opportunity to encourage youth to be vulnerable to try activities and new interests. While attempting new things, youth may not have success, but you can help them build resilience as you frame the experience in a healthy context that challenges them to try again.
Sharing Power and Voice
Can you remember a recent experience in which someone had power over you? How did it feel? Were you involved in the sharing of that power? Youth need to be involved in decision-making about their lives (Search Institute, 2020). At a young age, allowing simple decisions (such as meal plans, activities, challenge by choice) promotes inclusion and collaboration. Youth want to understand that we are working with them as much as being “in charge” of them. Camp creates many unique opportunities for youth to share power and discover their voices. Staff must recognize this need in youth and be aware of ways to address and support each individual’s need to hold their own power.
As young campers become adolescents and young adults, they seek more opportunities for respect and leadership experiences. This is one reason counselor-in-training programs are so important and often effective. Giving youth more decision-making responsibility allows for goal-setting and problem-solving. These 21st-century skills are imperative to promote individuals to be productive citizens (Applied Educational Systems, 2022).
Hope is forward-thinking. Hope is an action demonstrating motivation about the future. How does this play out at camp? What is the benefit of being hopeful? Research asserts that individuals who have a hope-filled approach to living have fewer MESH issues (Gwinn & Hellman, 2018). Hopeful individuals are often thinking about goals for the next day, week, and year. Helping youth consider what they are pursuing tomorrow at camp, next week when they return home, and throughout the school year can empower them to set personal goals that drive behavior. If we promote the hope given to us within the camp experience itself, that can have lasting implications for youth and adults.
All interactions at camp need to orient us in safety, love, and respect. If your camp has nighttime chats, use this time to elevate discussions that promote the uniqueness of individuals in a safe space. Encourage and recognize loving acts. The skill requiring the most attention is respect. As youth learn to navigate emotionally charged interactions, bullying, or other verbal altercations, they need guidance about how to respect peers who may think or act differently.
The camp environment provides an array of opportunities to express care, challenge growth, and share voice. We encourage camps to embrace skills that promote these essential needs of each individual. We can support mental, emotional, and social health for the entire camp community by taking it one step at a time. Each of us plays a role in following the path to a safe, loving, and respectful experience to achieve our goals in serving youth and young adults and spurring their personal development.
Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Carson, Princeton, IN; and Camp Danbee, Hinsdale, MA.
Tracey Gaslin, PhD, CPNP, FNP-BC, CRNI, RN-BC, is the executive director of the Alliance for Camp Health (formerly the Association of Camp Nursing). She is a dual-certified nurse practitioner specializing in pediatric development, service leadership, and research on gratitude. Tracey publishes the majority of her work in the areas of camp nursing, behavioral health, and service leadership and has authored numerous publications and texts. She is an active speaker, writer, and publisher representing the “leading voice in camp health” to promote hope and healing in youth-serving programs across the US and Canada.
John Hamilton, MA, of Leadership and Cultural Justice, leads Camp HOPE America, the largest camping and mentoring program for children and teens impacted by domestic violence in the United States. John serves on the Alliance for Camp Health Board as the board president, has been named ACA’s subject matter expert on trauma-informed care at camp, collaborates with clinicians, social workers, and child psychologists, and is a former executive director of a camp near Lake Tahoe.
American Counseling Association (n.d.). Vicarious trauma. counseling.org/docs/trauma-disaster/fact-sheet-9---vicarious-trauma.pdf
Applied Educational Systems (2022). What are 21st century skills? aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2021). Facts and statistics. adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
Association of Camp Nursing (2021). COVID-19 Research from summer 2021. Retrieved from data analysis in progress.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Coping with stress. cdc.gov/mentalhealth/stress-coping/cope-with-stress/index.html
Foster, C., & McCabe, S. (2015). The role of liminality in residential activity camps. Tourist Studies, 15(1), 46-64.
Garst, B., Erceg, L., & Walton, E. (2013). Injury and illness benchmarking and prevention for children and staff attending U.S. camps: Promising practices and policy implications. Journal of Applied Research on Children,4(2), article 5.
Gilboa, D. (2021). Mental and emotional health. Presentation Notes.
Gwinn, C. and Hellman, C. (2018). Hope rising: How the science of hope can change your life. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing.
John Hopkins Medicine (n.d.). Causes and symptoms of caregiver burnout. hopkinsmedicine.org/about/community_health/johns-hopkins-bayview/services/called_to_care/causes_symptoms_caregiver_burnout.html
Johnson, S. K., Goldman, J. A., Garey, A. I., Britner, P. A., & Weaver, S. E. (2011). Emerging adults’ identity exploration: Illustrations from inside the “camp bubble.” Journal of Adolescent Research, 26(2), 258-295.
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National Child Traumatic Stress Network (n.d.). Secondary traumatic stress. nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/secondary-traumatic-stress#:~:text=Secondary%20traumatic%20stress%20is%20the,disasters%2C%20and%20other%20adverse%20events.
Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C., and Garfield, R. (2021). The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.
Rico, A., Brener, N., Thornton, J., Mpofu, J., Harris, W., Roberts, A., Kilmer, G., Chyen, D. Whittle, L., Leon-Nguyen, M., Lim, C., Saba, A., Bryan, L., Smith-Grant, J., & Underwood, J. (2021). Overview and Methodology of the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey – United States, January-June 2021. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/su/pdfs/su7103a1-a5-h.pdf
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Van Dernoot Lipsky, L. and Burk, C. (2009). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.