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Two Canadian camps receive funding to address mental health

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Group photo of counsellors and campers at Camp Ramah in Canada (Camp Ramah photo)

Two years ago, Josh Peppin, the executive director of Camp B’nai Brith near Montreal, had to make a very uncomfortable, though necessary, call to the mother of one of his campers.

The youngster, Peppin notified the mother, told one of the counsellors that before coming to camp, he had contemplated suicide.

“The mother thanked me,” Peppin recalled. She knew her son had been exhibiting odd behaviours, but did not know why. With the new information in hand, she could now arrange for the proper mental health interventions, Peppin said.

Over the last few years, Peppin has noticed that mental health issues among campers – and even staff – have been increasing.

Apparently, that’s a trend that is not unique to Camp B’nai Brith. On Jan. 13, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), a U.S.-based organization, announced that it was awarding grants totalling more than US$1 million ($1.3 million) to 32 Jewish camps throughout North America, to address issues related to mental health.

Camp B’nai Brith will receive a total of US$20,000 in three instalments, as its share of the Yedid Nefesh (Hebrew for Beloved Soul) funding.

Camp Ramah in Canada, the only other Canadian recipient of the funding, will receive the same amount.

According to the FJC, the initiative “addresses the increasing challenges campers and staff face as it relates to MESH (mental, emotional, social health), with a multi-faceted, whole-person approach. Funds will be distributed to help camps hire qualified mental health professionals, and will be directed to counsellor training and wellness programming, such as meditation, yoga and journaling. In addition, a select number of camps will pilot a comprehensive assessment module to assist FJC in developing best practices around policies, procedures and staffing models.”

Peppin said the camp is looking to hire a social worker who has worked with children and is comfortable in the outdoors.

There are a number of issues that have  been arisen at the camp over the last few years, including questions of dieting and eating disorders, sexuality, bereavement and loss.

Last year, “we had three campers who lost parents during the summer,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, the director of Camp Ramah in Canada, which is located near Huntsville, Ont., said the camp is in the process of hiring a social worker with a master’s degree to work full time on site next summer. The social worker will add to the camp’s roster of volunteers and counsellors who work to address mental health issues.

“It’s already an area that Camp Ramah takes seriously,” Rabbi Bendat-Appell said. “We’ve had a team of these parent liaisons who support the mental health of campers and staff and work as a bridge between parents and the camp.”

Rabbi Bendat-Appell said the addition of someone with a master of social work degree will offer “more robust support for the mental health of our community.”

The camp was looking for someone with clinical experience and who could “speak to the best practices in the field,” he said.

Like kids at other camps, youngsters at Camp Ramah experience homesickness and there can be tensions between campers and counsellors. In addition, pre-existing mental health issues that can manifest themselves at camp.

By adding a mental health professional, “parents can feel comfortable that their children will be in a more supportive environment, with people trained to respond to the needs of their children,” he said.

As part of the Yedid Nefesh program, new hires will travel to Baltimore in March to take part in a “community of practice,” to learn about best practices.

According to the FJC, citing research conducted by the National Council of Behavioral Health in the United States, 50 per cent of all cases of mental illness begins by age 14 and 75 per cent by age 24.

Some 90 camps applied for the grants, a response the FJC said “highlights the pressing need for this initiative and indicates a shift in the field of Jewish camping.”

Peppin believes that society is becoming more open to discussing issues of mental health. And kids often feel more free at camp to open up about issues that are bothering them.

“Mental health is being seen as important as the health of other parts of the body. Schools are bringing it up,” he said. “It’s just a changing time.”

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