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Utilizing a mental health professional at your camp

For anyone working with youth and young adults today, you have a front row seat to witness what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has deemed a mental health crisis – “… the challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”

Camps have been striving to better understand and prioritize the mental health of their campers and staff at an even faster pace since coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts include creating robust training plans for all staff, creating schedules and programming that are conducive to promoting the well-being of campers and staff, and using mental health professionals to serve alongside their typical counselors and program staff. These mental health professionals may be hired staff, volunteers or independent contractors.

In taking steps to meet the present needs and challenges of addressing mental health, it’s crucial to be attentive of the risks and liabilities, so we can continue to provide safe and healthy experiences for our campers and staff.

Steps to consider when utilizing a mental health professional at your camp

  1. Create clear outcomes and objectives. A wide range of roles fall under the umbrella of mental health professionals. These may include a psychologist, counselor, clinical social worker, behavior specialist and more. It’s essential when hiring or contracting for a mental health professional, you understand the unique training and scope of practice of these specific roles. Matching the candidate’s license and experience to the unique needs of your camp is an important first step in effectively integrating this position. Most camps are not seeking to provide a clinical, therapeutic or diagnostic environment, so hiring a psychiatrist or even psychologist might not be the right match to your needs. Creating clear outcomes and objectives prior to filling this position will help you identify the role that is best suited for your camp.

  2. Scope of practice vs. treatment protocols. Treatment protocols should be determined in advance, including who can provide what types of care, how they provide it, and when they need to refer to external experts. While the scope of practice for a registered nurse allows them to draw blood from veins, your treatment protocols might state that bloodwork will be completed at a local medical lab or office.

Defining the services and treatment protocols that a mental health professional will provide in camp is vital. Their duties may also be defined in their job description to reinforce what is expected in their position at camp.

Treatment protocols should clearly define the types of supports and strategies that may be used, while also clearly stating what services will NOT be provided. Reasonable, lower risk supports may include assessing emotional and mental state, collaborating with key members of the staff team, assisting the camper and/or staff with overcoming obstacles, modeling positive behaviors, promoting suicide awareness and prevention supports, and creating a positive and safe environment for everyone in the camp.

If your camp model is not designed specifically for clinical or therapeutic interventions, some higher risk supports that should be excluded and referred to external experts are providing therapeutic counseling, diagnostics, and high-level continuous care for anyone who is harming themselves, threatens to harm others and/or exhibits serious behavioral issues.

When developing your treatment protocols, include the input of your mental health professionals and other health professionals serving your camp to develop plans that provide the best type of care while also protecting them and your camp from liability risk.

Treatment protocols that include social, emotional and behavioral health needs are important even if you aren’t using a dedicated mental health professional. These can include strategies for supporting well-being while clearly defining when to access external experts and support systems beyond what your camp can adequately and appropriately provide.

  1. Communication and confidentiality. Camp directors have seen an increased demand for transparency and communication to parents/guardians on all aspects of their campers’ experience. The purpose of mental health professionals in camp should be characterized as supports and services rather than treatment, but parents need a clear understanding of what this looks like for your camp. Like your health care policies, it’s key to communicate when services may be provided, the types of services that may be provided, when and how they will be notified about any services provided, etc. Camps can share their plans on their website, in a handbook for parents/guardians, in the registration process, in gathering and sharing health information, and/or presented at orientations.

Careful attention must also be given to addressing expectations and limitations of confidentiality with the camp’s mental health professionals. Campers and staff should understand limits of confidentiality at the onset of engagement. What are the safeguards to prevent highly sensitive information from being disclosed accidently to individuals who do not need to know? Review your practices for sharing critical information from health forms as well as your framework for handling mandated reporter incidents to develop a plan for how mental health professionals will protect the privacy and communicate the right information, to the right people, in the right way.

  1. Building competency across the entire camp team. Several factors can lead to undesirable mental health conditions, but the good news is that camps and the entire team of staff have the power to take action to support youth mental health and well-being. (The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory, 2021)

In a recent article in ACA’s Camping Magazine, Dave Brown, LCSW and camp director, reminds us as camp professionals that our goal is to connect and support rather than judge and analyze. Creating safe and affirming spaces at camp doesn’t fall only on mental health professionals. It is within the power of the entire team to understand strategies and components of building stronger mental health practices to enforce anti-bullying policies, recognize signs of campers or staff struggling and connect with them, expand social and emotional learning, and more. (The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory, 2021)

Consider building your staff toolbox with trainings like:

Building awareness of the steps staff can take to promote a healthy and safe space is foundational to addressing mental health and well-being in camp. “We don’t want to miss the opportunity to also increase the sense of connection that helps people to feel better… If we give our full attention as we listen to them, then validate and normalize their experience (‘It’s OK to feel overwhelmed by these difficult feelings’ and ‘It’s normal to feel this way; lots of us do at times.’) we provide needed emotional support within our scope of practice as camp professionals.” (Dave Brown, 2023)

Are you covered?

If you are utilizing a mental health professional in camp, we encourage you to work with your insurance partner to determine if you have the right coverage in place for the services you're providing.

Prioritizing the mental health and well-being of your campers, staff and extended camp community is essential to serving in this space today. With thoughtful planning, the benefits of providing a supportive and safe place at camp through the efforts of your staff and mental health professional supports are numerous.