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Summer Better Than Others

A January 2021 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Despite Covid-19 Risks, Summer Camps Are Filling Up Quickly,” points to the fact that organized camping is making a comeback!

And not a moment too soon.

According to the American Camp Association (ACA), “Camps build skills necessary to prepare campers to assume roles as successful adults. Parents, campers, and camp staff independently reported growth in areas such as self-confidence, independence, making friends, exploring and learning new activities, and spirituality. Indeed, camp provides growth experiences for youth that can benefit them through adulthood.”

Of the return of summer camps, ACA president/CEO Tom Rosenberg writes, “Throughout this past fall, reports have been flowing in confirming what many parents, teachers, and camp directors already intuitively knew — the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on our youths’ mental health (Leeb, Bitsko, Radhakrishnan, Martinez, Njai, & Holland, 2020). During this time, mental health providers have documented increases in both anxiety and depression. All this angst and uncertainty is affecting young people differently than adults. Physical distancing and isolation from friends is impacting their social development and causing psychological trauma through worry, sadness, and fear.

“Even before the pandemic, concerning research results revealed dramatically increasing mental health challenges for Gen Zers regardless of race/ethnicity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). Now, looking back at the first six months of the pandemic, mental healthcare providers are reporting increasing stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of several factors: issues stemming from COVID-19, social and racial turmoil, and the political climate. As stress levels grow, medical evidence suggests that adolescents are at risk for a host of problems, even into adulthood, from continued anxiety and depression to poor physical health (Houston, 2020).”

Rosenberg goes on to note, “Children, youth, and young adults will need immersive and educational camp experiences in summer 2021 more than ever before. Parents, educators, public health officials, and government and camp professionals need to step up this summer and do whatever it takes to provide young people vibrant camp experiences where they can recover from a stunted school year and be part of an emotionally and physically safe in-person peer community. Young people thrive when they experience supportive peer and mentor relationships and have opportunities to contribute and learn while participating in meaningful decision-making.”

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the youth mental health crisis in America long preceded the pandemic.

  • After a stable period from 2000 to 2007, suicide rates for persons aged 10-24 increased from 2007 to 2017, by 56%.
  • The suicide rate for persons aged 10-14 declined from 2000 (1.5) to 2007 (0.9), and then nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.

For their part, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reveals the following.

  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34

Throw a global pandemic into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

As Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and founder/president of Child Mind Institute, says, “During COVID, it became very important for us to look at how the kids are doing, and our kids are not all right …”

Recent research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and Total Brain, a self-monitoring and self-care brain performance platform, looked at the relationship between mental health and cognitive performance. They found that of more than 1,100 high school and college students assessed, 48 percent are at risk of general anxiety, 45 percent are at risk of social anxiety, and 39 percent are at risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On the key cognitive traits of memory, focus and planning, study participants scored far below the average percentile of 50.

  • Memory: 37th percentile rank (13 percentile points below standard average)
  • Focus: 37th percentile rank (13 percentile points below standard average)
  • Planning: 34th percentile rank (16 percentile points below standard average)

That brings us back to summer camps, which Andy Pritikin, the director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in New Jersey, says are the antidote to pandemic living.

Pritikin writes, “For two decades, I’ve been heralding the importance of summer camp to families who have never attended. Years before COVID-19, there existed a world-wide outbreak amongst our youth in technology addiction, social skill deficiency, indoor isolation, and over-parenting. And now, since March 2020, our kids have been living an increasingly bizarre, unnatural life of screens and quarantines, hybrid schooling (if they’re lucky), and enough fear and disappointment to last them into adulthood. However, in the midst of the insanity, we learned that summer camp can become a beacon of hope, a lifeline towing them back to their normal selves.”

Why is that so?

Because camps focus on socialization and relationships. They are also highly focused on promoting social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL is essentially a process in which children, teens, and young adults acquire emotional intelligence, develop empathy for others, and learn problem-solving skills. In the age of COVID-19, the value of camp experiences, and the emotional intelligence learned at camp, has never been greater than it is today.

Other ways that camps can return a sense of normalcy for pre-teens and teens is by providing assistance with three primary developmental tasks of those age groups: identity formation, independence, and peer relationships.

Finally, camps help children of all ages to pass through important milestones – or rites of passage – setting and achieving important growth goals.

As Pritikin informs us, “Camp offers kids the unique opportunity to step back into a simpler time, with no internet connection or mute button needed. A place where a small community can have faith in the human spirit and support from one another without judgment, simply because it’s the right thing to do. Our kids need to be out of our homes, playing with other kids, and camps have proven that it can be done safely, even under the most challenging circumstances.”

In other words, a summer better than others.

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