On July 27, 2016, our team at the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia went to summer camp.
Camp BELIEVE is a truly special place. An initiative of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia in partnership with Brigadoon Village and the support of Bell Aliant, it is a camp like no other.
Camp BELIEVE lets kids do what they do best – play. Congruently, they are supported by others their own age who know what it’s like to have a parent living with a mental illness. It is a place for kids to connect with one another, even their own siblings, and talk about what it’s like on those days when Mom can’t get out of bed or Dad can be overheard talking back to voices in his head.
“This camp was created out of the awareness that mental illness affects the family,” says Starr Dobson, CEO and President of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.
“We recognize the stress and guilt placed on parents who are struggling, the confusion and questions asked by children who can’t make sense of what it’s all about, and the stigma of asking for help.”
The camp sits next to a lake in beautiful Aylesford, Nova Scotia. It’s like every other summer camp with kayaking, archery, games and swimming except everything is centered around connecting youth who share similar familial experiences. Together, they learn healthy coping skills while engaging in traditional camp activities.
The age range of the children at Camp BELIEVE is eight to 17. Some of the camp’s staff and volunteers are former campers. There’s a medical team on site to deal with the children’s particular needs and medication. This year nearly 40 children participated in this week-long program.
As we toured around the facility, which has been there since 2011, we learned about food budgets, operating costs and other statistics. As we listened, we started to realize there’s more to this place than what you see at first glance; something more than a summer camp where forever-friendships are forged over campfires and sleepovers.
“Emotional demands can be pretty high here,” says Michelle Bohaychuk, the Director of Development at Brigadoon Village, who led the tour.
Brigadoon Village is a year-round facility for children with chronic illnesses or conditions. It hosts camps for children who are living with a variety of illnesses and conditions such as arthritis, epilepsy, cancer and even those who are struggling with bereavement.
“Some parents will call their kids to check in,” said Bohaychuk. “But at Camp BELIEVE, it’s the opposite. It’s often the campers who want to call home, not because they are homesick, but because they want to check on how their moms and dads are feeling; to see what kind of a day they’re having.”
It was clear to all of us just how important it is that a camp like this exits. The one thing that stood out time and again was that getting early support for a child who is struggling to cope with mental illness is the best possible thing we can do to help our children as they grow up.
As we absorbed this, a triangle dinner bell sounded and it was time for lunch. We had team pictures taken by the lake, met some of the campers and sat down to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
The kids sitting around my table didn’t look sad. They were great looking kids. Some were playing music, some were drawing and some were betting they can eat more sandwiches than their friends. They were laughing and smiling. We all were.
And we kept smiling as the cafeteria exploded in a camp-style sing-a-long that had every kid singing and cheering so loudly that I could no longer hear my colleagues who were sitting next to me.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It impacts people of all ages, genders, races and economic backgrounds. Parents who struggle with mental health concerns may worry about the impact the illness has on their children. But for a week, at Camp BELIEVE, their kids are fine. They’re singing and sharing, laughing and learning.
And most importantly, they’re being kids.
Visit our YouTube channel to watch a video featuring campers from this year's inaugural Camp BELIEVE produced by Brigadoon Village:
Jennifer Lewandowski, Communications Lead
Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia
Marly MacNeil, Communications and Media Officer