A “Shehecheyanu” Moment: Addressing Mental Health Challenges

by Rose Levenson

Summer camp is a magical place.  It is a place where children become independent and get to explore activities that they never would have experienced elsewhere.  There are campfires and s’mores, sleepovers with best friends, and lip sync battles with new friends.  Summer camp is also the place where mental health challenges often appear for the very first time in children, young adults, and professionals.  It is the place that I first had to ask a young person if they were hearing voices in their head, if they were experiencing assault at home or in school, if they were considering self-harm. Summer camps must address mental health challenges, and work to destigmatize seeking help and talking about mental health.

As a camp professional, I realized that I needed to learn more to inform my own work, and also to better prepare our staff to engage in challenging conversations and moments with young people and with each other.  About a month ago, I arrived at Camp Knutson, a camp I had never heard of previously, in Northern Minnesota, with a group of camp professionals from around the nation.  It felt how I think Opening Day must feel for first time campers….except that is was cold….and dark….and that we were on a very important mission.  Arguably, a mission that will save lives.

I and twenty-nine other camp professionals became certified Youth Mental Health First Aid instructors through a training organized in partnership between the National Council for Behavioral Health and the American Camp Association.  In a similar way to how first aid/CPR courses educate and certify individuals on how to respond to a medical crisis, Youth Mental Health First Aid courses certify folks to help youth who are experiencing a range of mental health challenges.  This training, orchestrated by Alli Faricy of Camp Foley in Pine River, MN, was a shehecheyanu moment, a pilot experience that was the first of its kind.  Camp professionals were intentionally brought together as a collaborative effort, to not only be certified to teach the Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum, but also to enrich each others’ professional work.  Mental healthcare, like physical healthcare, must be both preventative and responsive.  We must offer youth experiences that build their resiliency while also responding when they are in crisis.   The group of camp professionals at the training worked to unearth ways in which to be more effective at addressing mental health needs in both preventative and responsive ways.

I am immeasurably appreciative to work for an agency that invests both its time and money in sending a professional staff person to a week-long training on a topic as important as the mental health of our young people.  This type of investment is not only enhancing my own professional practice, but also sends a clear message to our community that we will continue to educate ourselves, our staff, and our community at-large in ways to best support youth.  We will continue the challenging work of destigmatizing mental illness.  We will train and educate our staff to respond to a camper in crisis.  We will train them how to ask if someone is thinking about suicide.  We will do this because we can and we will save lives.

The vast majority of camp professionals with whom I speak note that youth mental health challenges have been on the rise over the past few years.  Mental health challenges exist in every community, and I am deeply proud and humbled to work in a field that is driven by the passion to work towards a day when all children who attend a camp can receive the support they need –  deserve – to flourish.  Although this task often seems insurmountable, Jewish wisdom instructs us: ‘Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata be horin, l’heebatel mimena.’ You are not required to complete the work, nor are you free to ignore it. (Pirkei Avot 2:16)”.  Jewish camps are committed to working towards this goal.  Together, with organizations such as the Association for Independent Jewish Camps, the LA Jewish Teen Initiative, and Foundation for Jewish Camp, our one camp in Southern California has begun our own journey of the critical work of supporting those around us with mental health challenges.  Y’allah!

Rose Levenson is currently an Assistant Director at Camp Bob Waldorf in Glendale, CA after spending six summers at URJ Crane Lake Camp as both a counselor and unit head.  She is a proud alumna of Brandeis University as a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and Mount Holyoke College.  Rose is grateful to have had the opportunity to be directly involved with Foundation for Jewish Camp since 2015 as a Cornerstone Fellow and Event Staff member.  She can be reached at rose@campbobwaldorf.org.