Camp Believe is a summer haven for kids affected by a parent’s mental illness
By Jill Chappell
Each spring as students anticipate the arrival of long summer days in the sun, dozens of Nova Scotian children are anxiously awaiting their return to a place where they can be themselves and feel included.
“I don’t feel different than anyone else there. And I have no stress or worries when I’m at camp,” says one happy camper.
They’re talking about Camp Believe, a weeklong overnight camp for children aged 10 to 18 who are impacted by a parent or guardian’s mental illness. An initiative of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, in partnership with Brigadoon Village, the camp is in the Annapolis Valley on Lake Aylesford. The five-day getaway allows children to connect with others from similar family experiences while reaping the mental health benefits of nature and the summer camp experience.
“Camp is this magical bubble away from what makes the real world hard,” says Brigadoon Village summer director Tiffany MacInnes. “It presents meaningful opportunities for campers to work on things that are difficult and allows them to see what they’re actually capable of back home.”
Camp Believe provides inclusive programming, customized to meet the needs and interests of each camper. Activities include visual and performing arts, wilderness and environmental education, indoor and outdoor cooking, swimming and boating, and leadership challenges with a focus on mental health.
“Mental illness doesn’t occur in isolation; it affects the entire family,” says Starr Cunningham, president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. “Parents and guardians who live with mental disorders can experience a lot of stress and guilt about how their illness impacts their children. On the flip side, children have a lot of questions and concerns related to their neurodiverse family lifestyle. Camp Believe is place where families can get the support they need to thrive in everyday life.”
During their week away from home, campers discuss their parent/guardian’s mental illness, learn about mental health, and develop coping skills. Once campers take part in these discussions and skill-development sessions, they gain a better understanding of who they are, separate from their parents’ diagnoses.
“She was able to talk openly with other campers about her mental illness and her home life without needing to explain everything,” says one parent. “The other campers understand
and are dealing with the same things.”
The impact of Camp Believe is incredible. The majority of campers leave with new coping strategies they use on a regular basis. Many are more open and comfortable talking about their parent’s illness and life situation. Ninety-two per cent of campers say they feel better about themselves upon leaving and 80% show more confidence and independence.
“Our approach at camp is really positive reinforcement. We focus on pointing out the good choices they make and emphasizing their strengths,” says MacInnes. “The goal is for campers to leave having more positive words to describe themselves than before they arrived.”
Mental illness does not discriminate. It impacts people of all ages, genders, races, and economic backgrounds. For parents and guardians who live with mental disorders, there is often an underlying worry about the impact on their children. Camp Believe helps address those concerns by helping children develop important life skills, character, and meaningful relationships that contribute to their continued growth and success.
“He’s been able to stay home alone which he refused to do this before this summer,” says a parent. “He is also participating in youth group. He still shuts down, but will request alone time, and then return and discuss afterwards. He’s been more open to discussing therapies and coping strategies. Camp Believe has been healing, provided growth, encouragement, and fun.”
Camp Believe also helps children manage their own mental health problems in healthy, constructive ways. Counsellors and staff work with campers to develop new ways to deal with difficult emotions and techniques to help with the unique challenges they face having a loved one who lives with mental illness.
“She’s a people person but it takes her a long time to feel comfortable enough to open up,” says another parent. “Camp has proven so beneficial for her. She opened up and let people in. She has been much more independent—remembering to do her chores without reminders. She has managed an anxiety attack almost entirely on her own since coming home from camp!”
The feedback from campers and parents is overwhelmingly positive. Campers return home with new friends and lifelong memories. Of the youth who attend Camp Believe, 100% hope to return the following summer and would recommend it to someone else.
“When I got there, I instantly felt safe and it felt very homey,” says another camper. “All the staff were so nice. I’m so glad I had the chance to go to Camp Believe. It made me more confident and it was so much fun!”
Camp Believe is scheduled to run from July 25 to 30, 2021. For more information or to register, visit mentalhealthns.ca/camp-believe.
Jill Chappell is the marketing and communications lead for the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. She is a regular contributor to Our Children and Senior Living, and previously worked as anchor/producer at Global Halifax and CTV Atlantic. When the laptop closes, Jill loves to get outdoors: hiking, biking, swimming, and making the most of Canada’s Ocean Playground with her husband and twin boys.