Five Ways to Support Camp Counselor Mental Health

smiling black camp counselor sitting outside holding an open book surrounded by smiling kids

Counselors and counselors-in-training (CITs) are at the heart of any camp. They’re the greeting committee, activity leaders, de facto caregivers, cheerleaders, teachers, and first responders for kids’ physical and emotional needs. That’s a lot to ask of staff members, many of whom are in high school or college-aged. At a time of increased awareness about the importance of proactively promoting and protecting youth and young adult mental health, the mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) of camp staff needs to be a top priority.

In 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that one in three young adults from ages 18 to 25 had experienced a mental, behavioral, or emotional health issue in the past year. Among college students, 35% have ever been diagnosed with anxiety and 27% have ever been diagnosed with depression, according to the American College Health Association

At camp, a range of factors can exacerbate existing mental health issues, including loneliness, isolation, old-fashioned homesickness, the transition to a new environment, and limited access to both therapy and medication. At a minimum, a counselor or CIT experiencing mental health symptoms won’t be able to function at their best; at worst, they will need a level of care that could require leaving camp to get the help they need.

Although you can’t always predict or prevent mental health challenges, there are a few key things you can do to help counselors and CITs feel supported, connected, and resilient.

1. Describe the camp environment in your hiring process.

You’re legally prohibited from asking candidates about their mental health, but you can share information and ask questions that will help both you and the candidate understand whether they’re likely to thrive or struggle in your camp environment. 

If your camp is in a remote area, for example, you’ll want to describe what it means to be isolated from “civilization” and the challenges that come with it. You may want to ask for examples of when they’ve thrived in a similar situation. If they don’t have specific experience, you can ask what appeals to them about such an environment, what they would find new or challenging, and how they would handle those challenges. When you’re explicit in your description, you give candidates the opportunity to consider whether the job would be a healthy fit for them. 

Be clear about the essential functions of the job too. How many hours will they be on duty? What’s the pace of a day? How physically active will they be expected to be? What kinds of challenges might they face regarding their campers’ mental health? You can present candidates with scenarios and invite them to role-play how they would respond. 

Make sure you’re up-front about the accessibility of MESH resources. Will it be easy for staff to get prescriptions filled? Will they be able to continue teletherapy appointments? Will the activities schedule allow for regular or emergency check-ins with therapists? Is the internet signal strong enough to ensure they’ll stay connected with the therapist for the full session? What kinds of mental health professionals are on camp staff?

Remember that a candidate who chooses to share what they need to maintain their mental health could be a great addition to your camp community. They may, in fact, be an amazing asset — an empathetic resource for campers with similar needs. It’s your job to make sure the camp environment will be adequately supportive of the young people you employ.

2. Build community.

You want campers to feel like they are part of a community, and it’s important to build in the same support for staff. 

Connectedness, belonging, and mattering are all linked to decreased rates of mental illness, including suicide. In fact, a young person’s sense of connectedness is a powerful protective factor that promotes a sense of well-being and engagement in positive health behaviors, such as positive coping practices and seeking support when needed).

For some counselors and CITs, this may be their first time away from home. They may miss friends, family, or partners. They may simply feel like they don’t fit in. These factors, combined with residual effects of pandemic isolation and an upward trend in the rate of loneliness in young adults, put young adult staff at risk of feeling disconnected or detached. 

Providing structured social opportunities can help. At the start of camp, make sure there’s ample opportunity for staff to meet and get to know one another. During sessions, provide organized opportunities and dedicated staff space for counselors to socialize on camp grounds. Give them healthy opportunities to get together outside of work and away from camp if it’s realistic.

An additional approach: Support affinity groups. The groups can create opportunities for staff to connect based on shared identities such as race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexuality. The intent is to provide psychological safe spaces for staff of similar backgrounds to speak freely, support one another, offer perspective, and help navigate life and job stressors. 

3. Build in motivators.

Your staff members are going to give a lot — physically and emotionally — to a job that may not be the highest-paying summer job or a flashy resume builder. Young people often feel pressured to make the most of summers to put them in a strong position when they apply to colleges or internships or enter the job market.

Make it worth their while. Remember that young adults are developmentally driven to establish identity, skills, and purpose. One way to attract and retain staff is to create opportunities for professional development. Can you give staff credentials to put on their resume beyond their job title? Can they get certified in Mental Health First Aid or gain new skills from mental health workshops? Can they be trained in conflict-resolution skills? Are there ways they can take ownership of launching a new program or campaign aimed at promoting emotional wellness in the camp community?

It can also help to give staff time to attend to their needs. Many will be on their way to starting college or in between years of study. They may have coursework they need to complete during the summer or need to sign up for classes before the semester starts. Giving them time to attend to these responsibilities can help staff feel less stressed and for employers to show respect for what’s important to staff outside of work.

4. Encourage self-care.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your staff is time to do things they know will keep them mentally healthy, whether it’s exercising, reading, taking a walk, connecting with a colleague, or talking with people back home. 

Bear in mind, however, that counselors and CITs may not know what they need or how to practice self-care in a new environment. They may not know how to make the most of breaks, time off, or quiet moments before bed. Helping them develop time-, task-, and stress-management life skills will be beneficial during camp and beyond. 

Start the season by being candid about the challenges of the camp environment and laying out self-care strategies (e.g., go to bed when the campers do, make sure you eat, take advantage of the small moments of quiet, don’t overdo it on caffeine). It can also help to let staff know what resources are available to them. Is there a gym? A quiet place to walk? A space where they can get some alone time to clear their heads? Emphasize that staff can and should take advantage of these resources. 

Supporting employee spiritual self-care is another way to help counselors attend to and maintain emotional well-being. When possible, consider providing time, opportunity, and space for counselors to nurture their spiritual needs and practices, either at camp or off-site.

5. Make sure staff know they can ask for help and where to get it.

Last but not least, make it easy and safe for your counselors to talk about emotional well-being and, if they choose, their mental health. This can be done by chatting about mental health in a holistic and open manner, emphasizing the message that mental health is health, and fostering a camp culture of care and compassion. Communicate how your camp can support plans for care. Emphasize that you do not penalize a staff member if they face mental health concerns during the summer.

As part of staff orientation, educate staff about asking for help, whom to talk to, and where to go if they feel they need assistance with mental health issues. Let staff members know about on-site and local resources and nearby providers who may be helpful during a camp session if needed. 

If a staff member has to plan for specific treatment needs and chooses to discuss that with camp leadership, engage camp professionals and discuss ways to avoid treatment interruptions during employment. Make a plan for responding to urgent situations in case they arise. 

In general terms, camps benefit from training their counselors to recognize, reach out, and refer (if necessary) any peer or camper who may be showing early signs of struggle. That way, if a counselor is in need of support, their peers will be more confident and know how to start the conversation about their concerns. 

The benefits of promoting connectedness, fostering self-care, building skills and motivators, and providing proactive support for emotional health are many. Happy counselors translate to happy campers. Healthy counselors can reduce staffing and attrition issues. Prevention generates benefits far beyond crisis avoidance. A positive counselor experience may enhance the likelihood that they will return for future employment — and bring happy, lifelong memories and rewarding experiences for all.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts: 

  • Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
  • Text or call 988 or use the chat function at for access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal, substance use, or mental health crises, or any other kind of emotional distress.
  • If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

About The Jed Foundation (JED)

JED is a leading nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults. We’re partnering with high schools and colleges to strengthen their mental health, substance misuse, and suicide prevention programs and systems. We’re equipping teens and young adults with the skills and knowledge to help themselves and each other. We’re encouraging community awareness, understanding, and action for young adult mental health. Learn more about common emotional health issues for teens and young adults to support one another, overcome challenges, and make a successful transition to adulthood by visiting