With That In Mind, Part 1: What Directors Need to Know About Staff Mental Health

Christopher Thurber, PhD
March 2016
Arm wrestling

Hiring young adults to care for other people’s children seems like folly, from a neurodevelopmental perspective. Nobody’s brain is fully developed, many activities are dangerous, the weather can be violent, kids’ behavior is unpredictable, and all staff could use more training than directors have time to give. Pepper that risk and lack of preparation with a few mental health problems, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, the right prevention, training, and support can help you thwart catastrophe and create a formative experience for your young participants.

Well-trained staff are the lifeblood of your camp. Indeed, nothing is more important than the relationship between your staff and the young people they serve. Your staff are everything to these youngsters. They function as parents, coaches, teachers, mentors — and sometimes spiritual leaders — all at once. Keeping your staff mentally healthy is, therefore, the foundation upon which both risk management and business success rest.

Every camp professional has lost sleep over the well-being of certain staff members. How skillfully are they caring for the campers? Are they sharing their personal problems with the campers? Will they make it through the summer without putting themselves or others at risk? Is any staff member — heaven forbid — feeling depressed or suicidal?

The complexity of human variables involved in hiring, training, and placing staff is staggering. And anxiety provoking. Here, then, are the best practices for ensuring that you find and support the right people for the demanding leadership jobs at your camp. Performed thoughtfully, these are the very practices that help your staff perform at their best and maintain their stamina — from opening day right through to closing day.

Step One: Take this Job and Shove It

To avoid a disgruntled sentiment from kindling among your staff, start by refreshing your memory of what it was like to be a frontline staff member. Working at camp can be extremely stressful. Great fun, yes, but also taxing in ways that are unfamiliar to your first-year staff. Working hard at a day or resident camp means long hours, a change in environment, immersion in social drama, and exposure to challenging youth behaviors.

Because camp can be both a personal triumph and a trial, it can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. It can also cause new problems to emerge in staff who possess certain genetic, personal, or temperamental risk factors. What lay dormant or successfully internalized at home, school, or another job, may emerge at camp because the demands of the job are so high.

The stress of a camp job may also create subclinical problems — conditions that do not meet diagnostic criteria for a mental illness but whose symptoms nevertheless interfere with job performance. Stress can lower frustration tolerance, impair judgment, and strain relationships. And staff who are frustrated, strained, or otherwise compromised are more likely to use harsh discipline, inappropriate language, and unsafe touch. Keeping staff mentally healthy helps to prevent verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at camp.

Step Two: Be a Matchmaker

After recalibrating your mindset, the next step is to choose staff whose personalities and signature strengths are a good match for the requirements of the job. Consider this your “primary assessment.” Although the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) forbids you from asking a job candidate about physical and mental disabilities, you can ask questions about the person’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job.

You would be breaking the law to ask in a job interview, “Have you ever had a mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia?” It would also be illegal to ask, “Have you ever been hospitalized or otherwise treated for a mental health problem?” The ADAAA is designed to prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of a disability, and many mental health problems qualify as disabilities. However, you can ask questions such as:

  • How do you take care of yourself to be at your best?
  • What do you find stressful about school, friends, or work?
  • Everyone copes with stress in different ways. What works best for you?
  • What do you imagine to be particularly rewarding and especially stressful about leading young people?
  • How do you typically balance work, play, friends, family, school, and exercise?
  • What would be some signs that you or one of your staff colleagues was having a hard time?
  • How would you respond if you or one of your staff colleagues was struggling emotionally or behaviorally?
  • What are some subtle and obvious examples of behaviors that pose risks to children?
  • What role do substances play in your recreational life?
  • Describe an ideal night off or day off from camp.

Step Three: Describe Essential Functions

The most important thing you can do in an interview is to accurately describe the essential functions of the job (Erceg, 2015). Go into detail about the schedule as well as the responsibilities for supervision, punctuality, table manners, coaching, behavior management, running activities, and leadership. Most directors have an easy time waxing philosophical; fewer describe the job as it is performed on a daily basis. Do both, and then say, “I’ve described this job in detail,” because you have. Now it’s time for the twin questions that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) encourages:

  • What else would you like to know about your role and responsibilities?
  • How well do you think you can perform the essential functions of this job?

If you end up making a provisional offer of employment to this person, then you can require a physical exam and have a discussion about what, if any, reasonable accommodations you might need to make to assist a person with a disability perform the essential functions of the job. You can also request that a qualified medical professional sign off on this person’s overall fitness to do the job you’ve described. You must, however, do this as a matter of course for every employee, be they a new or returning hire.

You can even ask for a list of conditions and current medications on the camp’s health form, as long as you ask everyone the same questions. If a person can perform the essential functions of a job, perhaps with some reasonable accommodations, then you may wish to finalize an offer of employment. You may not, however, refuse to offer employment to someone based on a disability, including a significant mental health problem, as long as that person can perform the essential functions of the job. That would be considered discrimination and a violation of employment law.

For example, if a person had a history of depression, but had been treated and was now symptom free, then he or she might make an excellent hire. By contrast, if someone were currently depressed, then he or she might be unable to perform the essential functions of a camp staff member, and would therefore not be a solid hire. This assumes that some of those essential functions (as you described them in the initial interview) included being energetic, upbeat, and focused. You see now how important it is to outline the job description in the initial interview.

At this point, you’ve done a great primary assessment and abided by the spirit and letter of the ADAAA. The preceding questions are a fair and legal way to ensure a good match between the job and its candidates.

Step Four: Ride the First-Class Train

If you expect all of your staff — from the prep cooks and maintenance staff to the division leaders and head counselors — to make it through the summer with flying colors, then you need to train them properly. Many staff are ebullient in their interview but flag at mid-season simply because they lack the tools to do the job. Nothing saps stamina faster than being undertrained, quite simply because it leads to feeling overwhelmed.

The highest quality staff training begins a month or two before opening day with some self-paced online training. Video training modules give staff a vivid picture of what you described in your initial interview by showing skilled staff in action. Video also provides acculturation to your foreign staff by depicting what life is like at North American camps. Finally, pre-season training engenders a professional mindset in your staff. Indeed, the very act of assigning pre-season training communicates just how seriously you take the enterprise of camp. Your investment in the staff reflects your investment in the children.

By teaching key skills long before camp starts, your pre-season training also helps to prevent burnout. Online training teaches staff the best ways to care for themselves, cope with stress, spend time off, and collaborate with their peers. Remember that some of your staff come from countries where the drinking age is lower, cigarette smoking is common, summer camps are scarce, and the motivation to travel around North America is high. These are staff who need to shift their mindset from “party” to “protect.” No job is more important than caring for children.

Monitoring your staff’s online learning will also give you an accurate assessment of how seriously they are taking their job. Have they logged on yet? Have they completed the pieces you assigned? If the learning management system you’re using includes quizzes, what were their scores? Have they participated in the chat threads you’ve initiated? What questions have they asked? You can get a clear sense of the superstars and the slackers just by assessing their pre-season, online engagement.

In all the ways discussed, pre-season training can be considered “primary prevention” for the development of mental health problems at camp. And monitoring online engagement and performance can be considered “secondary assessment.” Both activities nicely complement the primary assessment you performed during the initial interview.

Once your staff are on site, you’ll continue their training by conducting in-person workshops. This is a great chance to continue your secondary assessment. Watch how seriously they take your on-site training. Are they sitting up, taking notes, and asking good questions? Or are they hiding in the last row, leaning back, and trying to sleep behind a pair of sunglasses? Are they willingly participating in cleanup and setup, or finding excuses to make themselves scarce? Observe how the staff get along, sleep, eat, and perform in set-up tasks and role-plays. How your staff participate and care for themselves during your on-site staff training are excellent predictors of how well they’ll fulfill their duties with children.

Step Five: In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Okay, you won’t be breaking any glass, but you do need to equip your staff to recognize and respond to psychiatric emergencies. They should know what to look for and what to do when their own or another staff’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions become problematic.
As a general principle, staff should seek support for themselves or a colleague when a psychological problem arises. They would do the same for a physical injury or illness. Unfortunately, however, there is some shame and stigma associated with admitting depression, anxiety, or other mood symptoms. Staff may also struggle with sexual identity, substance abuse, stormy relationships, and family stressors.

Your “secondary prevention” strategies should include educating the staff about basic wellness strategies (i.e., healthy eating, adequate sleep, physical exercise) as well as the supports that are available at camp (e.g., senior staff and health center staff). Share with everyone the appropriate times for accessing on-site mental health resources. Discuss with everyone your expectations for how best to respond supportively to challenging situations, such as when they (or a colleague):

  • Experience excessive fatigue or lethargy
  • Display disordered eating, such as restricting or binging
  • Lose their temper or seem at risk for abusing or neglecting children
  • Appear excessively sad, nervous, apathetic, or preoccupied
  • Return from time off intoxicated or hungover
  • Misuse their own or a fellow staff member’s prescription medication
  • Show signs of an online addiction (e.g., gambling, pornography, social networking)
  • Behave erratically, either while on duty or during time off

All people have moods shifts, off days, and intermittent frustrations. It’s normal to struggle in the face of a significant challenge, of which working at camp is definitely one. And learning to bounce back from adversity is a valuable life skill, which we call resilience or grit. That said, you’ll want to teach your staff to recognize signs and symptoms of serious mental health problems, both in themselves and others. To help detect such problems, one should ask whether symptoms are:

  • More severe than usual
  • Lasting longer than usual
  • Resulting in significant distress
  • Harming relationships
  • Adversely affecting job performance

Specific job performance decrements that might indicate a serious mental health problem include: chronic tardiness; neglect of campers; obsession with or special interest in one or two campers; reliance on campers for emotional support; disinterest in activities; irritability or low frustration tolerance; forgetfulness; inattention to details; poor follow-through; unusual or unsafe risk-taking, including during time off; and big changes in sleeping, eating, or grooming habits.

In addition, staff should recognize and seek support for chronic moodiness; sadness; nervousness; sleep problems; eating problems; significant dips in motivation; feelings of guilt or worthlessness; or any suicidal thoughts, feelings, or actions. Train staff to support each other and come to supervisors if they see problems, or even when someone doesn’t quite seem themselves. They might be tempted to hush concerns, but that places both the staff member and his or her campers at risk. The principles of professionalism and teamwork require that we take action.

Step Six: Call in the Reinforcements

Directors should always take suicidal thoughts and feelings seriously and immediately consult a licensed mental health professional when such symptoms arise. There simply is no room for error when it comes to a person’s safety or the safety of your campers, so even fleeting suicidality necessitates consultation.

Establishing a relationship with a licensed mental health professional sounds complicated, but it’s not. Some programs are fortunate to have such a person on their staff already. If you don’t have such a professional on payroll, then I recommend the following: Sometime in the months before your season starts, find some qualified clinicians by speaking with your primary care physician, doing an online search, and speaking with other camp directors. Once you have a list of four or five candidates with camp experience, call them to inquire about their availability and willingness to serve as a consultant in the event you have a question, concern, or crisis with a camper or staff member. If, like me, they work at a school, they may even be free all summer, which opens up the possibility of hiring them full-time for the season. If you cannot find a local clinician, your insurer might also be able to give you the name and contact information of a consulting professional you can access in an emergency.

Whatever the arrangement, be sure that you have at least two psychologists or clinical social workers you could call to consult. Have their home, work, and mobile numbers, just in case. Agree ahead of time on their availability, terms of service, and payment. And remember that their role is to consult with you and the staff member about whom you have a concern. This work is not psychotherapy or another kind of treatment. The function of a professional in this case it to assess and advise.

The central questions to answer are: What’s going on? Can this person continue to serve at camp? If he or she needs to leave camp for a while or have his or her employment terminated, how can camp provide a safe and supportive transition to home and appropriate care? At this stage, avoid any armchair diagnoses. Simply state what you see and why it concerns you. Protect this employee’s confidentiality by discussing his or her case only with others who need to know. Be sure to consult your camp’s attorney and insurer to get sound legal and risk-management advice. And finally, as a courtesy, you’ll want to follow up with any staff member who has a shortened period of employment, whatever the health reason. The ADAAA does not require you to provide treatment for a disability, but following up does show that you care.

Healthy Culture = Healthy Staff

It takes most camps five years to intentionally dissolve unhealthy traditions such as the training week beer bash, the perfunctory lost bather drill, the lighthearted hazing of first-year counselors, or the derisive labeling of odd kids. These and other rituals and releases can morph into healthy traditions that reflect the seriousness of purpose all directors want in their staff. Once transformed, these elements of your camp’s culture serve to promote, rather than erode, your staff’s mental health.

Creating a healthy culture also means combining the primary and secondary assessment strategies previously detailed with the primary and secondary prevention strategies that include proper interviewing and training techniques.

Select healthy young adults who are clear about the job, loyal to your professional expectations, committed to pre-season and on-site training, resolute in their commitment to take care of themselves as well as the campers, and reliable in their willingness to seek help for themselves or a staff colleague if problems arise.

In addition, ensure that staff have adequate time off, access to a binder of healthy time-off options, plenty of time for sleep and exercise, and lots of healthy food choices. When the bulk of your efforts are aimed at creating a culture of wellness and support, the risk of serious mental health problems drops to a minimum. And when problems do arise, praise the staff who brought it to your attention, provide support and consultation for the staff member who is struggling, and give that staff member every reasonable opportunity to perform his or her job well when he or she is feeling better.

No director has a crystal ball that enables him or her to predict the mental health trajectory of even the most carefully hired and trained staff member. But if you follow the guidance in this article, you won’t need one.

Additional Resources

Find more helpful guidelines on maintaining camp staff mental health; visit ACAcamps.org and search for the following:

  • Webinar — Mental Wellness for Campers and Staff: Tips for the Camp Professional
  • Webinar — Mental Health Issues in Camp
  • Mental Health Resources — Tips for Camps (from MentalHealth.org)

In addition, ACA has given its Educational Endorsement Program seal of approval to ExpertOnlineTraining.com, which hosts videos on a hundred topics, including: hiring and firing staff, wise use of time off, duty of care, safe touch, skillful discipline, and alcohol beverage laws.

Photo courtesy of Camp Howe, Goshen, Massachusetts

References
Erceg, L. (2015). When staff MESH Impacts Camp. Camping Magazine (March). Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/articles/when-staff-mesh-impacts-camp
U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. (2009). Employers’ practical guide to reasonable accommodation under the Americans with disabilities act (Report No. DOL079RP20426). Retrieved from http://askjan.org/Erguide/index.htm
U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. (2008). The Americans with disabilities employment act amendment act of 2008. Retrieved from eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/adaaa_info.cfm
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 ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website, CampSpirit.com.