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21 Things Working at a Summer Camp Taught Me About Mental Health

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Summer camp: a space of shared experiences with focus on both the notion of tradition and the empowerment of a generation. Camp is so much more than s’mores and bug spray. I outline the 21 lessons I learned about my mental health from working at an American summer camp.

1. Friends are fundamental.

Friends are to well-being what the sun is to the sunflower. A friendship of shared acceptance and support for each other’s true and healthy selves can alone be the source of some of your best times, as well as the strength and the energy for some of your hardest times. True friends help and celebrate the growth of one another. 

2. Family is both prescribed and fluid.

Family — you can choose your own! The saying you can’t choose your family is true to an extent, as it is the case for many as young children. As I’ve grown, seeing, and in some senses, becoming, a part of the family others find in summer camp, I have learned there is choice in who you call home.

3. It’s “normal” for something new or different to feel scary.

The experience of fear or anxiety does not define who you are or who you will become. The feelings are valid, temporary and sometimes unjust. Hear them, sooth them and plunge into the crispy-cold lake water because of and in spite of them. 

4. You don’t have to be the best at something or even good at something to take part and enjoy the activity.

Whether it be water sports, land sports or being with friends, sometimes the purest feelings of joy can be found in simply being who and where you are.

5. Maximize the quality of your breaks.

In camp, as in life outside of camp, your own time, a time for rest and recuperation, can easily pass you as you run between limitless tasks, activities and responsibilities. Therefore, when you have some “me-time,” use it mindfully and maximize the potential benefit time can have on your well-being based on your specific needs at that time. If you need to nap, nap. If making a start on your laundry puts you at ease, do that and do so with friends or alone, do what you need how you need to. 

6. Take ownership over your work-life balance.

A break, rest or downtime will not always come and find you, so create it. This is your right and responsibility to yourself, friends, family and community.

7. Everyone is affected by their health.

Yes, including those you look up to, those you see every day and those you don’t.  

8. Seeking access to opportunities is not shameful. 

Everyone has needs, obstacles and challenges — and they are all different. Adjusting and seeking, increasing and upholding accessibility is beautiful, meaningful and critical. 

9. Needs change.

Seeing others experience the roller coaster of emotions and circumstances from day to day, week in and week out — it’s a fact of life. Needs change in all directions at all different speeds and that is OK. 

10. Outsourcing medical support is not a sign of failure, it is a means to meeting a need, it is necessary for health.

I didn’t see one person the whole summer who didn’t at some point look to another for help, advice or support — whether this be emotional, practical, medical or otherwise. 

11. Crying in public is not uncommon and can be perfectly healthy to do so.

There are more tears at camp than there are pine trees, both are glorious and strong. 

12. Taking prescribed medication or other over-the-counter medications to promote your health is a cause for celebration, not shame.

Watch a seven-year-old take eye drops and tell me this is not a cause for celebration. 

13. You really are not the only one.


14. Who and what you surround yourself with daily is vital to your mental health.

Think sincere smiles, encouragement and love.

15. You cannot do everything. 

This is not a challenge. It’s a fact. Free yourself from unattainable standards.

16. Seeking and accepting help can be incredibly empowering.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

17. You can make your own traditions . 

You don’t have to live from anyone else’s calendar — celebrate what you want, remember, recognize and relive what works for you. 

18. Appreciation goes a long way.

A scrap piece of paper with the right word can be all it takes to lift someone’s spirits. A pat on the back works, too. 

19. Finding and using your own voice and having this heard is invaluable to health.

If you speak, there is always someone listening. 

20. Personal growth is a good thing.

I don’t know a single person who has left camp with less than they came with, and I know they would all do it again in a heartbeat if they could.

21. You matter.

You always have and you always will.

Getty image by Анна Андреева

Originally published: December 5, 2019
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