Staff Anxiety — The New Normal

Bob Ditter
Kids getting ready for climbing wall

“Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When the mommas sang us to sleep
But now we’re stressed out . . . .”
— Stressed Out, Twenty-one Pilots

Mary Beth is leaving camp. After fewer than ten days as a new counselor she couldn’t sleep and had become increasingly overwhelmed by the challenges of getting her campers up in the morning or off to activities on time after cabin cleanup — which was a battle in itself — or to bed at night. The loss of privacy and lack of time to herself didn’t help. She didn’t really want this job to begin with, but her mother urged her to apply. After all, she had always loved camp as a kid, and her mother had hoped that the structure of camp and being around others would be good for her. Mary Beth just couldn’t handle the stress of it all.

Mary Beth is one of several counselors whose stories I have heard in the past two years from their somewhat bewildered and concerned camp directors. In fact, of the 21 camps I visited in the spring and summer of 2016, only one did not have a story of a counselor who had to leave camp the prior year because of anxiety and stress that he or she could not manage. This anecdotal evidence is borne out by a survey conducted with 200 camps by the American Camp Association’s Healthy Camps committee in the summer of 2015 (Gaston, 2015). The results of that survey revealed that the number-one concern of camp owners and directors regarding staff was anxiety and depression. (According to the same survey, the number-one concern of directors regarding campers was ADHD, followed by homesickness). Indeed, the Center for Disease Control reports that anxiety and depression in young people is at a 40-year high (CDC, 2011).

No one can say with absolute certainty what the causes of increased anxiety are in teens and young adults. However, from my work with child and adolescent patients in my private psychotherapy practice in Boston and with children’s summer camps across the country, I have come to suspect four leading causes. Let us look at them one at a time.

Where Do the Children Play?

In a 2010 op-ed in the New York Times, David Elkind, author and former Professor Emeritus of child development at Tufts University, reported that a University of Michigan study found that between 1979 and 1999, children in the United States lost over 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor time. One result of this loss has been the gradual disappearance of what child development experts call “the culture of childhood,” which consists of things like songs, rhymes, games, ways of choosing sides, superstitions, and other things children share and pass down from generation to generation. Hand-in-hand with the loss of the culture of childhood has been the loss of unscripted, imaginative play, which is where children learn to invent solutions to problems, “practice” different outcomes, and work out their differences — all through made-up games and stories (Elkind, 2010).

In upper socio-economic classes it is very hard to convince parents that unstructured free play is anything but frivolous. Better that their children are taking flute and dance lessons, playing on a sports team, going to a language immersion school, and doing everything to “get ahead.” Peter Gray, a psychologist who has studied play for decades, asserts that play is a natural antidote to stress in that it builds flexibility, creativity, and resilience in children. Play is the “work of children,” Gray says, a time when they practice conflict resolution and use their imaginations to problem solve. It also turns out that children who experience more free play as youngsters have much better executive functioning later in life. That is, they have a greater ability to plan, organize, and prioritize their work and to track their thinking than children who play less often (Gray, 2011). Gray thinks that by eliminating this rich source of practice, we have undercut a child’s natural defenses and strategies for managing stress.

Indeed, there are very few opportunities for children to engage in imaginative, unstructured, self-directed creative play today, either because of a loss of natural play space or because of the tendency to over-schedule children and pressure them, directly or indirectly, to be heavily scheduled. As Alexander Khost, an educator and sponsor of a “junk pile camp and playground” in New York, says, “From the time they wake up to the moment they go to sleep kids aren’t given a space or time to choose how they’re going to use it without an adult coming in and telling them, ‘That isn’t safe,’ or, ‘You’re wasting your time.’ We’ve lost touch with the value of being able to wander about and roam, and the freedom to create, tinker, and fail” (Correal, 2016). Morgan Leichter-Saxby, the director of the “junk pile camp” on Governors Island in New York, adds, “If we want our kids to be curious, motivated, resilient, and brave, we need to give them opportunities to do just that” (Correal, 2016).

Our society has made play a four-letter word. We have essentially stripped children of the opportunity to be in the flow experience that play provides — an experience that strengthens their psychological immune system. Indeed, 35 years ago in his book The Hurried Child (1981), David Elkind predicted that the pressure being placed on children to perform would result in an increase in stress and mental disorders. What we are seeing in adolescents and young adults is that prediction come true.

The Pressure to Perform

In a story for The Atlantic Monthly titled, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” Hanna Rosin reported on the effect that over-scheduling and constant academic pressure has on many high school students. Although Gunn and Palo Alto High Schools are extreme examples (the ten-year suicide rate for the two valley high schools is between four and five times the national average; over 12 percent of their students have reported having considered suicide in any one academic year), the pressure to perform is similar in countless other high-achieving high schools in other affluent communities around the US such as New York; Washington, DC; Boston; Dallas; Grosse Point, Michigan; Greenwich, Connecticut; Seattle; Los Angeles; Denver; Winnetka, Illinois; and so on (Rosin, 2015).

In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz states, “An elite education manufactures students who are smart, talented, and driven, yes; but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose” (2014).

The day after a Gunn student threw himself in front of an oncoming Caltrain in early November 2014, one of his classmates put up a YouTube video in which she said, “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous. Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements.” She explained that her video was primarily for parents, because, “apparently it took a suicide to get adults to pay attention. We’ll do just fine, even though we got a B-minus on that chem test. And, no, I won’t join the debate team for you” (Rosin, 2015).

Suniya Luthar, a professor and researcher at Arizona State University who has done a considerable amount of research into the causes of adolescent anxiety and suicide, has identified a phenomenon in upper-income class teens she calls, “I can, therefore I must” (Rosin, 2014). “Middle class kids generally do not live with the expectation that they should go to Stanford or earn $200,000 a year. The yardstick for the children of the meritocratic elite (children whose parents can pay for them to go to a high-end camp for several weeks at the cost of $6,000 to $12,000 a summer) is different and can intimidate as much as it can empower” (Rosin, 2014). In other words, the expectation of greatness, either directly or indirectly placed on them by their parents and their lifestyle, sits in their minds like a kind of tyranny.

A Great Disconnection

Luthar has identified what may be an even more important contributor to distress among adolescents, which is that affluent and poor kids feel remarkably isolated from their parents, if for different reasons. Her research indicates that there is a U-shaped curve in pathologies among children by class. At each extreme of rich and poor, kids are showing unusually high rates of dysfunction. Upper-income high school students smoke weed, drink, and use hard drugs at a much higher rate than other kids, including poor kids. Wealthier kids lie, cheat, and shoplift. Poor kids fight, carry weapons, and are delinquent from school. Both have trouble feeling their parents are available to them either emotionally or physically. Rich kids sense their parents’ love and approval is tied to how well they do in school. As a result, they often feel a kind of resentment toward their parents — a resentment that is very hard for most of them to admit. Poor kids often feel a lack of consistent connection to their well-
intentioned parents, who often have to work two and three jobs just to make ends meet and who are therefore often not around when their kids need them (Luthar, 2006).

Social Media: You Can Never Be Enough

In his book Teen 2.0, Robert Epstein says, “The turmoil of our teenagers is due entirely to the societal practices that infantilize young people and isolate them from responsible adults, trapping them in the frivolous, media-controlled world of ‘teen culture.’ Anthropological research also demonstrates that when Western schooling and media enter cultures where teenagers are highly functional, they typically take on all the pathological characteristics of American teenagers within a decade” (2014).

Indeed, many adolescents and young adults I speak with talk about social media as both a blessing and a curse. “It helps me stay connected,” is the refrain I hear from most of my teenage patients. Yet they acknowledge that the “connection” is often superficial and that “everyone knows that what most people put up on their homepages is unreal and inflated.” But as one of my young college-aged patients admits, “You can’t help but compare yourself and wonder why your life isn’t as glamorous or wonderful. It’s like you can never be enough.”

Then, of course, there is always the lurking possibility that you will be caught in some compromising photo that will be posted online and cause you or a friend of yours tremendous humiliation. Many camp directors know only too well the reality of cyber-bullying in the ranks of their own campers. In some ways social media has become the always on, never-to-be-escaped, ubiquitous social “report card” on life that crosses all socio-economic lines.

All for Nothing

As I am writing this article I am listening to news reports of the “greatest terrorist shooting on US soil,” where a gunman who claimed allegiance to ISIS killed 50 people and wounded over 53 more in Orlando, Florida. This incident comes only six months after a couple also claiming allegiance to ISIS killed over 14 people in San Bernadino, California. Many young people do not feel safe from the threat of terrorist acts that we have witnessed from afar in London, Paris, or Madrid. Remember that today’s staff members who are 18 to 22 years old were between three and five years old when the attacks on Washington and New York occurred on September 11, 2001.

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s we used to have “duck and cover” drills where we would put our coats over our heads as we knelt in the hallway or under our desks. We were told that these rehearsals were in case the Russians dropped a nuclear bomb on us. It has been replaced in modern-day life with “shelter in place,” a drill designed to protect against an active shooter. Most camps in the US have recently added an “active shooter drill” to the list of precautionary training in orientation. One counselor I met recently joked that “duck and cover was replaced by shelter in place, which today has been replaced by ‘head for the hills!’”

Indeed, the young adults of today have grown up with constant bomb threats in school and the threat of lockdowns. Worse is that they see the bombings in Madrid, London, and Paris — along with the war in Afghanistan, the constant fighting in the Middle East, and global warming — and they can’t help but wonder what their future will be like. These fears form a backdrop to their anxiety, the worry that all the pressure and preparing they work so hard at is for naught because the world is headed for disaster anyway. Global warming and global terrorism only add another layer of uncertainty to already stressed-out young people.

What Can You Do?

The first thing to remember about taking steps to reduce or manage anxiety in your staff is that these steps should be part of an overall healthier lifestyle at camp, designed to help everyone on staff balance caring for others with caring for themselves. The second thing to remember is that there will always be a few individuals whose anxiety is so longstanding or so well established that even the most effective self-care habits will not alleviate their symptoms. There may still be a few staff members who, once they experience the reality of life at camp, will decide they can’t manage the stress and leave.
That said, there is reason to believe that practicing an array of healthy lifestyle habits at camp can help the adult staff better manage the stress that naturally comes with caring for other people’s children.

Find Purpose

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant points to the power of purpose and meaning in the lives of successful people. Grant tells us that burnout is not the result of working too hard or too much, but working without a sense of being effective or without making an impact (2013). His work supports the work of Angela Duckworth, who tells us that when we compare the purpose in people’s lives with the pleasure in their lives, it is people with a deep sense of purpose and meaningful work who report being happier and more successful (Duckworth, 2016).

At camp it is important to continually let the staff know the importance of their work by reading letters and e-mails from parents and former campers whose lives have been touched by camp. There also needs to be an opportunity for counselors to reflect on the growing up their campers are doing through the efforts they as staff are making with them. Far too often staff are too close to the day-to-day give-and-take with campers to see the incremental improvement they are making with them.

One way to help staff manage the stress of their work is to create what some camps call “peer support home groups.” These are groups of counselors formed during orientation, where returning staff are mixed with new staff, that meet periodically throughout the summer to talk about best practices (who has a cool way of getting kids to bed at night?), stresses (who has had a really homesick camper and how did you manage?), and stress relief (who is walking in the morning before reveille?). Time and again we have found that when peers have the opportunity to support one another and share in positive practices, the more everyone benefits. The key to this practice is to avoid it turning into a gripe session. If the groups stay focused on best practices and stress relief, that can be avoided.

Another practice I have seen some camps engage in is a mentoring program, where newer or younger staff members are paired with veteran staff. These pairs meet periodically in small groups throughout the summer to talk about best practices, problem solve for challenging campers, and discuss ways to alleviate stress that do not create another kind of stress (like not going out as a way of getting more sleep). One of the factors in stress that increases its impact is when people feel like they are in a stressful situation alone. Having carefully crafted peer support can alleviate that sense of isolation.

Exercise the Body

One of the key stress reducers we know of is exercise. Even a short ten-minute walk can lower the stress hormone cortisol and raise the “can do” hormone testosterone. Exercise that is not too stressful in itself, such as walking, swimming, jogging, or biking, can be an effective stress management tool. When I was a counselor at Camp Viking, a boys sailing camp on Cape Cod, we had an early morning running club. About six of us would get up 40 minutes before the campers and take an easy jog through the woods, leaving enough time to shower and be ready for the kids before reveille.

Identify Triggers

Another technique for managing stress, which cognitive behavioral therapists use, is to have anxious people identify what it is that triggers their anxiety. Most people spend little time analyzing their habits to know whether certain times of the day or certain situations trigger their worry. Once you know what your triggers are, you can either avoid them or plan for them. One such trigger might be being alone with the campers. If this triggers you, one plan would be to always have another adult nearby so you don’t feel you are alone.

Meditate or Pray

One last practice that individuals can easily learn is meditation or prayer. Interestingly enough, the part of the brain that is involved in making judgment calls — the orbital frontal cortex  — is also the part of the brain that is engaged in meditation and prayer (Ratey, 2001). Given that counselors are making judgment calls all the time, it might be helpful if they actually had a practice where they reflected momentarily — even for 30 seconds — about what they might need from the universe in a given moment to be their best. For me personally, that might be focus, calm, wisdom, courage, or patience. Taking even a brief moment to reflect can help me summon whatever it is that will help me meet a challenge.

These are a few examples of the kinds of healthy living practices many camps are experimenting with, not only to address anxiety in staff, but to create a better balance between the natural stress that comes from caretaking and the need to take care of ourselves. As I have often said to interns in the mental health field, you can’t take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Photo courtesy of Avid4 Adventure, Boulder, Colorado.

References

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