Supporting Our Scouts’ Mental Health at Camp

By Andrea Watson, Director of Outdoor Programs and Properties

Even before the ravaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed increasing mental health challenges for Generation Z (youth born between 1997 and 2012). And now as we look back over the last 18 months, mental healthcare providers are reporting dramatic increases in stress, anxiety, and depression. As stress levels grow, medical evidence suggests that youth are at even greater risk that could last into well into adulthood.

The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is in its simplest form – to prepare young people for life. So how can we help prepare Scouts mentally for the challenges they face now and in the future?

One best practice is to provide mental health support for Scouts, staff, and leaders at our camping programs. The Atlanta Area Council has done this for the last several years, and the positive impact has been felt by their campers, staff, and Scout leaders.

According to Matt Rendahl, Atlanta Area Council’s Director of Camping, this idea started with a simple conversation with his camp director. “We were discussing the number of youth who needed help and that we didn’t have the right support on-site. We reached out to a volunteer and licensed psychologist, and from there, it has just taken off.”

Every summer at camp, the Atlanta Area Council has a psychologist on-site during their weekly camp sessions. Some psychologists stay for several weeks, and others rotate in and out week to week. This has provided a go-to resource for everyone at camp. Rendahl said, “Everyone needs a Peggy! A licensed psychologist, Peggy worked in a school system and now has her own practice.”

Peggy and the other psychologist come to camp when Peggy isn’t available to provide support to camp staff and even counseling sessions with parents over the phone whose child is at camp. This resource has helped these Scouts process trauma they brought to camp with them.

Sometimes what might have presented as a physical condition resulted from homesickness, depression, or anxiety. Rendahl notes that having these mental health counselors at camp has decreased visits to the health lodge. At the Sunday evening Scout leader meeting, Rendahl notes, “Peggy has a line of Scout leaders waiting to chat with her about the needs of their Scouts. There is a real demand within our units”.

Regarding the program, Jason Baldridge, Director of Safe Scouting and Support, says, “Every youth is unique and has needs we should be prepared to serve if we want to provide a memorable, impactful outdoor experience.  While some needs are easy to see on the surface, others are hidden, like mental, emotional, and behavioral conditions (collectively “mental health”).  Creating a camp culture that encourages open conversation about mental health, creative solutions to meet youth where they are, and acceptance of all results in a camp being the place and time where youth can be their full, unrestrained and unabashed self.  Camp can be the place where they flourish, build confidence, and derive maximum joy if we are prepared to meet their unique individual needs.  I’d challenge all camps to strive to be that place just as we are striving to be here in Atlanta.” 

We agree with Jason and Matt 100%! Providing these resources at our camp programs can provide the support today’s youth need now more than ever before.  We might not all have a Peggy we can call today, but we can start somewhere! A few ideas:

  • Touchbase with your Council Health Supervisor. Do they have resources you can access locally that can be shared with your unit leaders? Who do they know in the mental health community who could be on a call list for your camps?
    • One of the best sources is the American Psychological Association.
    • Other options include contacting local colleges. Psychology majors (both undergrad and grad school) always need to have internships, volunteer projects, etc. to graduate. 
    • Contact area churches, local hospitals or community health centers. Many have programs in place. 
  • The American Camp Association has a host of “MESH” resources you can access (MESH stands for Mental, Emotional, Social Health). Check those out
  • The BSA has several excellent safety moments on this topic that you can review here. Talking about mental health is an essential first step.

And finally, just getting Scouts to camp can make all the difference! Our youth thrive when they experience positive mentor and peer relationships in the outdoors, which is precisely what Scouting is founded upon (sounds like a few very familiar methods of Scouting to me…).  Attending camp helps our Scouts reset and practice social-emotional competencies that will help them now as they weather the COVID-19 pandemic but far beyond that as well.