Blog  Supporting Campers’ Social-Emotional Needs: Youth Mental Health First Aid Training

Supporting Campers’ Social-Emotional Needs: Youth Mental Health First Aid Training

by Shaina Morrel, General Counselor & Jake Rudolph, Director of Digital Media 

Mental Health is becoming prominent in today’s culture and, unfortunately, is paired with negative stigmas. As a significant number of people suffer from disorders like anxiety and depression, it is necessary for us to learn the various indicators and facts that are relevant for assuaging the issue. Counselors specifically are faced with the challenge of deciphering between normal behavior for their campers and issues that should receive attention. These are the reasons why Crane Lake is committed to creating a culture that breaks stereotypes and provides care for any child struggling with their mental health.  

In the Youth Mental Health First Aid Training, our cohort of 25 staff members did not learn how to diagnose or treat an issue but rather how to recognize physical, emotional, and social changes. Mainly, when presented with a potentially problematic circumstance, the instructors suggested that our best route was to provide support and lead an affected camper to designated camp professionals. We were trained just like first responders for a physical injury: once a warning sign is apparent, we must take appropriate measures to alleviate the problem in an efficient and calming manner.

One important skill we learned was to be careful with language, so that a person does not feel defined by their mental health condition. For example, instead of saying “Fred is autistic,” it is better to say “Fred has autism.” This distinction is seriously important because children and adults may not understand the necessary difference between the two responses. Though both answers seem adequate, someone who has genuine intentions and is ‘just trying to help’ can come off as condescending or even trigger a negative response if they frame it incorrectly. After learning this skill, counselors reported feeling more comfortable with how they should speak with their campers in order to strengthen our mission.

A related concept we learned how to avoid is the concept of ‘should-ing’: making a person feel obligated to behave in a certain way or view themselves with stereotypes associated with a specific mental health issue. This practice is counterproductive because: 1) there is not one universal diagnosis for any mental health matter and 2) it may force a child to obscure their true thoughts and feelings. One person’s depression can be completely different than another’s because mental health issues runs on a spectrum. Thus, associated stereotypes must be understood merely as indicators that have tremendous variability. This teaching is incredibly relevant for the camp environment because we promote a culture of radical inclusion, accepting everyone for who they are. “Shoulding” a person facilitates the opposite by feeding into the tropes surrounding mental health which can cause even more harm.  

To conclude, we looked at mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, and focused on the miraculous yet heart wrenching story of Kevin Hines. After a life of suffering with mental illness, Mr. Hines became an eerie icon after his attempt to end his life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He is now within the 2% of jumpers who survived mentally induced suicide in the exact same location. In his documentary, Hines says he did not receive the support he needed to feel like his life was worthwhile. Although his father was his rock, people would turn their heads at the sight of him – affirming his beliefs that the world was not a welcoming place. No tourist or passerby approached him while his tears rained over the railing. Only a couple that wanted their picture taken at the Californian landmark. To him, this was a sign that he was invisible. Hines had no reason to live, however, by an astonishing improbability, he is able to tell his story with inspiring veracity.While this story is morose and hard to digest, Kevin Hines can now educate others on what happened and how to help those suffering from deep mental illnesses. It also left all of us with a crucial lesson: if just one person had simply extended a polite greeting, he would’ve changed his mind. 

Every person is responsible for making others feel important. This can be done simply with a smile and a hello everywhere around camp. Honestly, that’s kind of how we naturally do things here.We are loving and accepting of all. At Crane Lake Camp, we learned about Kevin Hines’ and his unique story; how his life could have been changed with the touch of friendship. We learned that addressing people without labels is the most appropriate response when assessing a situation and, moreover, a great tactic for interactions in general. The takeaways from the Youth Mental Health First Aid Training will create an environment that is not only more adept at recognizing and handling those with mental health issues, but also one that is more inclusive and aware of the type of community we want to create here at Crane Lake Camp.

To learn more about the Youth Mental Health First Aid training at camp, check out this article in the New Jersey Jewish News.

YMHFA training at URJ Crane Lake Camp is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Mental Health & Wellbeing at Camp pilot program, supported by the Neshamot Fund – Women’s Impact Philanthropy of UJA-Federation of New York.