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Protecting children at summer camp

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Over the past two months, people’s lives have been turned upside by COVID-19. Parents are balancing working from home with childcare while also worried about the health of their family and an economic downturn. While it has been a challenging time for adults, the impact of the sudden disruption of daily life has taken a toll on children. They have been out of school for months, missing out on socializing with friends, team sports, milestone occasions, birthday parties, and even the funerals of their loved ones.  Most adults I know are having a hard time processing all this loss. Our children, many of whom already have high rates of anxiety and depression, are grieving for so much.

As a summer camp professional, I see the mental health issues many children have and arrive at camp with from eating disorders to struggling with gender identity to suicidal thoughts. While it’s idyllic to think that children’s problems stop the minute they get off the camp bus onto camp, the reality is that many of them arrive with the same problems they have in their home life. After all this time of sheltering in place, undoubtedly some those children will have higher amounts of mental health issues this summer. Unfortunately, due to an archaic New York State law, camps are unable to hire licensed mental health practioners to address these issues. While New York camp owners are still awaiting guidance from the state and local agencies on whether we will be able to open camps this summer due to COVID-19, I’m equally focused on the health and safety of children during COVID-19 and our camper and staff’s mental well-being. 

I applaud Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for recognizing the trauma the coronavirus has caused and for partnering with the Mental Health Coalition and creating the New York State Emotional Support Hotline to support people in distress. Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly and the New York State Camp Directors Association certainly agrees. Each year, we advocate for a bill that would allow regulated children’s summer day and overnight camps to hire licensed mental health professionals for the camp season. This year, for the fifth time, the State Senate unanimously passed this bill, however, the Assembly bill keeps getting stalled in the Higher Education Committee year after year. Schools routinely hire social workers and mental health professionals, as do summer camps in neighboring Northeast states.  

It is my responsibility to ensure that the children and young staff attending my camp program are safe whether it’s an infectious disease such as measles or COVID-19 or their mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 children in the U.S struggles with a mental disorder. Knowing this statistic, it is just irresponsible to fail both campers and young staff when they are at summer camp. It’s time for the New York Assembly to recognize that young people deserve quality mental health care while at camp.

Dan Weir is president of New York Camp Directors Association and senior director of program development and enrichment for YMCA of Long Island.

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