The Impact of COVID-19 on Adolescent Mental Health and How Summer Camps Can Help

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The last 18 months have been a difficult time. Layoffs and shutdowns led to severe layoffs and loss of economic stability for many Americans. More recently, labor shortages have been affecting companies all over the country. Remote work has led to a turning point for peoples’ perception of the value of their time and what they need to be healthy. Remote learning for youth has led to a drastic increase of time spent at home and a dramatic decrease in the amount of social opportunity and interaction. The subjective awareness of contracting COVID-19 can also affect people, both adults and youth, on a daily basis. All of these crises and shifts have created severe disruptions in the usual rhythm and routine for many adolescents across the country and world. These disruptions have played a role in increasing the severity and frequency of mental illness in youth.

In April of 2021, Psychiatryadvisor.com published an article titled, ‘Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Adolescent Mental Health.’ In this article, the author Tori Rodriguez, discusses several studies which state that the COVID-19 crisis has led to a rise in mental illness in youth and adolescents. There a several factors that she attributes to this rise. First, a decrease of in-person learning and school has led to a reduction in diagnosis and counseling for youth and adolescents who suffer from mental illness. Second, the constant experience of trauma from instability, fear of sickness, excess media coverage, and death of family or friends has led to an increase in the severity of mental illness in teens who have pre-existing conditions. Third, adolescents and youth are negatively affected by the pandemic’s impact on their caregivers such as loss of employment, financial and emotional stress, and potentially spending more time with dysfunctional or abusive families.

For the article, Rodriguez interviews Dr. Rousseau whom is a professor at McGill University in Montreal. When asked about longer-term solutions for the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis Rousseau answers, “In Canada, pediatricians have advocated for the return of youth to school and the preservation of their social network (not partying, of course!). Youth need their peers to pursue their individuation-separation task, and this has been made impossible during confinement. We need to find a balance between the security of the elderly and the fulfillment of adolescent developmental needs.”

The ‘individual-separation task’ is a term used by psychologists to describe a specific developmental term or point in a person’s life. Karpel defines the task as, “the process by which a person becomes increasingly differentiated from a past or present relational context.” With in-home learning and a reduction in out-of-home social opportunities, psychologists argue that youth are seeing a decrease in opportunities to differentiate. And in this context, the differentiation is occurring between the self and the family/home. Adolescence is the time for exploration, challenges and failures. And psychologists are saying that these opportunities are being greatly limited because of the inherent limiting nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Institute of Health, in March of 2021, published their findings of several studies that focused on the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the mental health of youth and adolescents. Their findings asserted that, “Adolescents had perceived high rates of low to moderate social support during the pandemic, which contributed to increases in anxiety and depression.” This is in-line with other findings that argue that the lack of in-person peer socialization is having a negative effect on adolescents. School, recreational activities, and generally just “hanging out” are ways that youth feel seen, heard, and supported by their peers. Unfortunately, these were also the activities that were greatly reduced or eliminated for the last 12 to 18 months depending on where you live.

Little by little, it seems we are returning to the normal way of going about things or perhaps we should call it the “new normal.” I can personally say that 2020 was a long year for my mental health in terms of instability and uncertainty. But then June of 2021 came around and it was great to be in the Red Creek Valley and see many faces that I recognized during our summer season. I had been social distancing for so long that the usual high energy of the summer seemed that much more exciting. Our campers were beyond stoked to see old friends, make new friends, and make some new memories with all. For some campers, it was their first immersive social interactions since the pandemic kicked into gear in early 2020. This came with a lot of challenges but I am happy our campers got to experience a summer of being outside surrounded by their friends and peers.

I believe that our program, and summer camps in general, are going to be an important opportunity for youth to partake in the ‘individual-separation task.’ The camp environment, day or residential, is immersive in terms of taking a child out of their home-zone and placing them in an environment where they have an opportunity to shape their own identity, navigate complex interpersonal interactions, and be given challenging experiences to develop their emotional regulatory skills. These learning opportunities are bolstered by supportive staff members whom are there to support campers in getting the most out of these situations and help them along when they need a hand. I am excited to roll into our 2022 season. We are looking to create new mental health and mental illness training curriculum for our staff in order to ensure that our campers have the support and resources they need. We are streamlining some of our feedback processes so that we are staying up-to-date regarding staff and camper mental health. Overall, I cannot wait for campers to return to the Red Creek Valley for another summer of excitement.

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Truman McGee