Summer camp can be and typically is beneficial to children in ways big and small. The benefits are both obvious (learning new skills, independence in a controlled and supervised environment) and more subtle (developing social skills and community building). Campers at mental health programs will certainly enjoy these benefits, too. But being in a program specifically designed for their unique needs ensures that they reach other goals or benchmarks as well.
The American Camp Association website addresses the roles of even mainstream camps to understand and know how to handle issues of campers’ mental health. The article “Children’s Mental Health and Camp: What Is Our Role?” covers not only how to act with campers who have different needs, but various issues with counselors as well. Dr. Ethan Schafer writes:
“Be wary of how labels can affect how we interpret a camper’s behavior…Encourage staff to put their personal opinions about the validity of a child’s diagnosis aside… It is appropriate to train staff members to make observations as long as they can keep an open mind — and to give them the tools to communicate their observations to parents in a compassionate, objective manner.” (Schafer)
Most summer camps that focus on mental health are geared towards children and teens with special needs, such as the day camp at Joe and Mary Mottino family YMCA in San Diego county. Others are created specifically for campers who have lived through a trauma or loss, LGBTQA+ or gender-variant youth, or those with learning or developmental disabilities. Still others exits for at-risk youth and students failing at school. With such a variety of challenges, how does a camp prepare itself?
According to the article “Camps for Kids with Special Needs” on KidsHealth.org, “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all camps to make reasonable accommodations (such as the installation of wheelchair-accessible ramps) so that kids with special needs can attend.” (Bachrach) However, a camp that meets the legal requirements may not be enough.
Some camps have extra accommodations like grief counseling, group therapies, and specially trained staff. Others offer a more laid-back experience where the greatest benefit is being among peers with similar life experiences. The website Needy Meds lists a variety of summer camps that focus on mental health and behavioral issues. The programs range from single-day experiences to multi-week “sleepaway” camps for children from a variety of age groups.
Mental health camps may work well in a variety of situations, but before you sign up it’s a good idea to do some research on what the camp offers in general, and what it will offer for your child in particular. In his article for KidsHealth, Dr. Steven J. Bachrach lists some questions to go over with your child, which may help you decide what camps to even look into before beginning your research. These include, but are not limited to: “Are there any activities you really want to try?” “What do you want to get out of summer camp?” and “Are you comfortable being away from home?” (Bachrach). These questions not only help you narrow down your options, but they help your child have some control over a potentially new and scary scenario. Dr. Bachrach also recommends touring the camp space together, if possible.
Having a mental health issue or other type of special need doesn’t mean your child has to miss out on the popular experience of summer camp. On the contrary, there may be a program near you that will help address their needs better than a mainstream program. If your child is seeing a medical professional, consult them about summer camps and find out if they have any additional recommendations for what might help make this summer a productive and enjoyable one for the whole family.