Think, for a minute, about the adults to whom you were most strongly attached as a child. Can you see their faces and remember how they treated you? Perhaps you see parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, or youth leaders, such as camp staff members. Resilient adults can all think of at least one warm, reliable person who served as a defining caregiver and mentor. Their warmth and reliability are what created that resilience, that ability to bounce back from adversity. They brought us joy and boosted our confidence. Now imagine this summer’s campers reflecting — in ten or 15 years — about the adults who meant the most to them. Consider how gratifying it would feel if one of those adults were you

To become that memorable caregiver has one fundamental prerequisite: taking care of yourself. If you are not well, you are no good to your kids. But how hard could a camp job be? After all, the promotional material makes camp look like a constant carnival, and movies about summer camp make it look like a perpetual party. Neither is true. The hours are long, the environment is unfamiliar, the weather is unpredictable, the social maze is complex, and the kids are messy. Most campers will test your skill; some will stretch your patience; a few will get sick. On you. Nervous? You should be.

If you’re reading this, you’ve accepted a position at camp and are serious about doing a good job. Kudos to you for embracing this important challenge. No job is more important to our culture and our planet than raising healthy children. And you get to play an incredibly influential role. Truth be told, summer camp is a better experience than any website or film can convey. But before you dive headlong into a job that takes a lifetime to master, you’ll want to lay a solid foundation of excellent mental health.

What’s Up, Doc?

A stressor is something that taxes or exceeds a person’s ability to cope. At camp, possible stressors include:

  • Frenetic schedules
  • Demanding campers
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Restrictive policies
  • Shifting friendships

These chronic hassles wear on every camp staff member, from the most seasoned director to the greenest leader-in-training. Stressed staff can become edgy, frustrated, and moody. They may experience a relapse of old mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. They may even develop new problems, made worse by homesickness, relationship break-ups, troubles at home, or substance abuse.

Feeling mild, episodic stress is normal, and there are healthy ways to cope (outlined here). Feeling intense, chronic stress, however, can impair your judgment, reduce your energy, diminish your motivation, and even put you at risk for mistreating a child. Think of it this way: Staff who are feeling rested and joyful — both in their personal and professional lives — do not abuse campers verbally, physically, or sexually. Nor do they mistreat their colleagues or eschew camp rules. By contrast, any staff member who is feeling unhappy or frazzled is at greater risk for behaving unprofessionally with his or her campers and peers.

Will an Apple a Day Help?

Yes, it will. However, a healthy diet is only one of the three pillars of wellness. You’ll also need rest and exercise. Together, sleep, good food, and keeping fit will give you the stamina you need to maintain your energy, focus, and psychological balance. Nutritious food and physical exercise are abundant at camp, but sleep can be scarce. Whether you work at a day camp or resident camp, it’s tempting to stay up late, hanging out with your co-leaders. If you can discipline yourself to get enough sleep each night, you’ll be better than your exhausted peers at handling stress.

An active, well-rested, and well-nourished staff member also needs some effective strategies to cope with the inevitable stressors. For you, that might be daily reading; for others, it’s prayer, meditation, calling home, reading, napping, working out, or talking with peers.

For staff who are currently in treatment, say for an anxiety disorder, mood disorder, attention deficit, or eating disorder, I recommend that you continue treatment throughout the summer. Stay on any helpful medications and continue to meet with your therapist, either in person or via Skype. Because the camp schedule may be more structured and active than your schedule at home or school, you’ll want to talk with your prescriber about adjusting the dosage and timing of any medications. And, because you cannot keep any medications on your person, in a locker, or (for overnight camps) in your cabin, you’ll need to make a plan with the camp nurse or doctor for temporary storage and dispensing through the camp’s health center.

If there is anything about your condition that might interfere with your ability to do your job, now is the time to discuss that with your camp’s director. He or she can help you decide whether reasonable accommodations need to be made or whether you’ll be able to perform the essential functions of a staff member without any modifications to how you do your job. Because your responsibility to care for children is so great, you’ll want to be sure you have key supports in place before opening day. Withholding obstacles to your performance is unethical.

The Time-off Test

Binge drinking might be thought of as the default time-off activity at many camps, but there is no more powerful or dangerous way to sap your energy. The intent of your nights and days off is to recharge your batteries. To support this restorative goal, most camps have assembled a time-off binder to help you make smart choices among local movie theaters, camping spots, restaurants, and regional attractions. (If your camp doesn’t have a binder yet, start one today with the help of some senior staff.)

To assess whether you’ve spent your time off wisely, give yourself the “time-off test.” Upon returning to camp, simply ask yourself, “Do I feel relaxed, refreshed, and ready to go?” Your honest answer to that single question will help you plan for the next time off. If your answer is “Yes,” then you’re probably doing what you need to be doing. If, on the other hand, your answer is: “No. I feel worse than when I left,” then you should revise your plans for the next night or day off. Here are some guidelines.

Poor use of time off includes:

  • Driving outrageous distances. Try not to spend more than 25 percent of your time off in the car.
  • Binge drinking. This is both dangerous and draining. You’re likely to return to camp spent.
  • Using illegal drugs or someone else’s prescription medication (effects are unpredictable).
  • Staying up most of the night (effects are highly predictable).
  • Anything that causes you to return to camp stressed, sleepy, or impaired in some way.
  • Dangerous risk-taking. Your campers are counting on you for the whole season, so refrain from potentially lethal activities, such as cliff diving, bridge jumping, drunk driving, etc.

Wise use of time off includes:

  • Planning ahead to do something fun and relaxing, (e.g., movies, hikes, museums, sight-seeing, shopping), perhaps using the camp’s day-off binder.
  • Staying fairly close to camp, including at a peer’s or camp alum’s house.
  • Some solitary or mellow activities (e.g., writing, drawing, canoeing, hiking, going to the beach).
  • Sleeping in, just as long as you want. Although you can’t bank sleep, you can certainly make up for a mild sleep deficit with a mammoth night’s sleep.
  • Cooking out with friends. Food always tastes better when grilled outdoors. Check out the video, Outdoor Cooking with Youth, hosted by Faith Evans, and the Scout’s Outdoor Cookbook, by Christine and Tim Conners.
  • Taking advantage of your in-camp time off. Even 30 minutes off can help you recharge, so use it wisely!

Buddy Check!

At camp, you’re working as part of a team. If your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors concern you, be sure to consult with the camp’s director, camp nurse or doctor, or your clinician at home. Becoming a youth development professional means recognizing when you’re not firing on all cylinders — and then doing something about it. Remember, it’s a sign of strength to ask for help. You owe it to the kids you’re caring for to be 100 percent healthy, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Teamwork also means supporting your peers when they show evidence of a mental health problem. Talk with any fellow staff member who shows one or more of these symptoms of psychological distress:

  • Significant dips in motivation
  • Neglect of campers, for any reason
  • Obsession with one or two campers
  • Reliance on campers for emotional support
  • Chronic tardiness or forgetfulness
  • Disinterest in people or activities
  • Irritability or low frustration tolerance
  • Inattention to details, including safety
  • Lack of compliance with policies
  • Repeated criticism of camp, job, peers, or supervisors
  • Poor follow-through with responsibilities
  • Moodiness, sadness, or nervousness
  • Big changes in sleeping, eating, or grooming habits
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Expression of suicidal thoughts or feelings

Just as your asking for help in times of distress is a sign of strength, so is providing support to a colleague when his or her thoughts, behaviors, or emotions indicate a problem. Both require that you make yourself vulnerable for the good of the group.

Perhaps whatever is going on will be easy to remedy; perhaps professional intervention is needed. Either way, your attentiveness and ability to connect a suffering peer with appropriate care is essential to the overall health and safety of the camp and its clients. Indeed, it’s your ethical duty to share any significant concerns about yourself or a peer with the camp’s director. He or she will be happy to help.

Another way you can provide peer support is by setting a good example. When you cope with stress in healthy ways, discipline your campers appropriately, spend your time off wisely, and take care of yourself, your peers will follow suit. By contrast, your reckless behavior will also be imitated.

Matters of Attitude

Nothing turns the camp tide faster than a critical mass of staff with negative attitudes. Even the most positive staff begin to whither after hearing “this sucks” hundreds of times. To stay in top form, remember why you took your camp job in the first place. Remember all of the fun parts of the job, including being outdoors, making new friends, and contributing to the positive development of so many youth. Do your best to keep your expressions of gratitude high and your complaints to a bare minimum. And counter “this sucks” with a little empathy and contradictory evidence. Statements such as, “It can get tough, but I love all the other parts of this job.”

Children rarely intend to make their caregivers’ lives miserable by misbehaving. In almost all cases, misbehavior is evidence of a skill deficit. Kids are not being sadistic, they just haven’t learned how to behave well in certain circumstances. Losing a game, getting snubbed by a friend, and feeling threatened can stir up misbehaviors in all but the most sophisticated youth. And even when they are not upset, children are impulsive and energetic. It’s their job to test limits. So don’t take campers’ misbehaviors personally. Instead, see it as developmentally normal. This view goes a long way toward your adopting a positive attitude this summer. Remembering that misbehaviors also present opportunities for you to learn will cement that positive attitude and help you grow into a stronger leader.

Finally, remember that you are part of a team. Nobody does their camp job alone. If you’re feeling blue with sadness, green with inexperience, red with anger, or any other color of the rainbow, be sure to lean on one of your fellow staff members. Challenges push you to learn and camaraderie picks you up when that push knocks you down. In that way, good mental health is not only a requirement for your camp job, it’s also a consequence. Enjoy.

Find With That in Mind, Part I: What Directors Need to Know about Staff Mental Health

Discussion Questions

  1. When are you at your best? Your worst?
  2. How would you support a fellow staff member who is under-performing?
  3. What would your response be if you noticed a fellow staff member who was hungover? Would your response change if he or she was lifeguarding or belaying?
  4. How can the staff at your camp create a healthy time-off culture?
  5. If you felt your temper starting to boil with a child, what would you do?

Photo courtesy of Gold Arrow Camp, Lakeshore, California.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and delivering original content to professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website,