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Inside an effort to bring more mental health support to kids at N.H. summer camps

Jane Vaughan
In a survey the American Camp Association New England sent to 1,200 camp leaders, 90 percent said they were implementing some type of mental health services, said Executive Director Michele Rowcliffe.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other news outlets to republish its reporting.

Summer camp directors say the activities inherent to camp – new friendships, outdoor adventures, and communal living – have the potential to be a powerful antidote to the mental health challenges kids experienced during months of pandemic isolation and remote learning.

So, many jumped at the chance to bring on a mental health clinician at no charge, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Department of Education.

“I have decided that we need as much support as possible around this mental health stuff,” said Kate Lemay, executive director of three overnight summer camps in the Lakes Region owned by YMCA of Greater Boston. “I don’t know if it’s just the pandemic or the amount of time on a screen or the lack of being outside. If this is an emerging need in kids, I think it’s our responsibility to be in front of it as best as we can.”

Those concerning behaviors have included increased suicidality, more irritability, difficulty navigating relationships with peers, and social anxiety.

The grant will allow each of the state’s 10 community mental health centers to provide summer camps and programs clinicians to help in a variety of ways, including training staff before kids arrive, working with campers in small groups or individually, or being on-call for difficult situations.

Some programs, like the Boys and Girls Clubs in Concord and Manchester, will have a clinician every day. Others, like Lemay’s camp, asked for only staff training because she has hired two people with counseling degrees to be on site to provide extra support for kids who need it. The training is not intended to ask staff to be mental health counselors but instead help them recognize symptoms of different mental illnesses and give them tools to respond in a trauma-informed way.

“It’s, ‘How do you give directions in a supportive way? How do you planfully ignore some behavior if there is not a safety issue?’” said Melissa Colby, director of Riverbend’s Community Mental Health Center in Concord, which is working with five summer camps or programs.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut secured federal funding for the initiative last year, but it arrived too late for the mental health centers and camp directors to identify how best to use it. While some centers used some of the money to expand their mental health counseling in schools this year, most are directing it at supporting summer camps and day programs.

Edelblut said he saw the grant as an opportunity to expand the department’s Rekindling Curiosity program, which aims to make camp and summer programs available to more children by providing qualifying families up to $650 for tuition.

“After being out of school for the 2020-2021 school year, many (kids) are dysregulated and need to get back to normalcy, be outside, or be with a friend,” Edelblut said. “We thought this would be a good option because kids were already involved with camps. We could reach out and meet those needs.”

Roland Lamy, executive director of the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association, said the opportunity was a good fit for the community mental health centers to continue working with existing clients who attend camp and kids who may need services. He said the association is talking with the state about the possibility of expanding the program beyond summer camp this year.

“Our goal is to find as many touch points as we possibly can and meet children where they are to best address their mental health care needs,” he said. “The commissioner had great foresight by asking us to support his outreach efforts to get ‘grass between the toes’ of New Hampshire’s children, as he puts it. He felt, and we agreed, that having supportive mental health care experts available to camps was important and was an appropriate investment in our children.”

In a survey the American Camp Association New England sent to 1,200 camp leaders, 90 percent said they were implementing some type of mental health services, said Executive Director Michele Rowcliffe. New Hampshire is unique in providing training, on-site support, and on-call clinicians, she said.

“After 2021, we really found that the mental health of campers called for new training and approaches to meet kids where they are,” Rowcliffe said. With camp enrollment numbers nearly at pre-pandemic levels, camp directors are eager for additional support.

The Seacoast Mental Health Center is collaborating with about six summer programs. When Jodie Lubarsky, vice president of clinical operations for the center’s youth and family services, first met with camp directors, she asked them to give her their “unicorn list” of supports they wanted.

“I said we might not be able to fulfill every ask, but we will do our best,” she said. The goal will be twofold: support staff and a wide range of campers and establish partnerships with camps in hopes of continuing to collaborate after the grant money is gone. There isn’t an expectation that camp staff will become mental health counselors.

“I think the biggest key to this project is recognizing what the last 27, 28 months have done to impact the mental health (of children),” Lubarsky said. “The collaboration between the Department of Education and Community Behavioral Health Association shows how two organizations can come together with the shared mission of meeting the needs of children throughout the state.”

Jeanna Still, director of Child and Adolescent Services at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, couldn’t offer summer programs much last year because the center was so short-staffed. She’s been able to hire five workers specifically for this initiative, which will allow the center to staff five programs, five days a week. Those will include the Boys and Girls Club, Girls Inc., and Fun in the Sun’s three sites.

“I think this is money well spent,” Still said. “For some kids, it’s preventing them from getting kicked out when the behaviors are much more than the camp is equipped to manage. Or giving an extra lawyer of support to treat kids and connect them with additional services is what they may need. I hear nothing but gratitude.”

Staff at Riverbend Community Mental Health is partnering with five summer programs, offering a range of services that includes training, running social-emotional groups, and daily on-site work with kids.

Among those is the Boys and Girls Club in Concord, which it has worked with for years. In the past, Riverbend staff have been able to work only with children whose insurance covered their services. The grant funding has allowed the center to work with all kids.

Colby said the opportunity to get out in the community and be part of a summer program will be good for her staff as well as campers after nearly two years of responding to increasing mental health needs from its youngest clients. Camps, like schools and mental health centers, began seeing those challenges increase as well. “Helping kids navigate those (challenges) at camp became a constant need,” she said.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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