Today’s youth are experiencing unprecedented rates of mental illness. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, the share of American teens who said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year rose from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021. While researchers continue to explore root causes of the crisis, what we do know is that early intervention is key to supporting young minds and preventing issues from escalating.
Imagine you’re a summer camp counselor. You notice a camper who appears anxious and is pulling away from the usual activities. Now she sits apart from the group, showing signs of a panic attack — rapid breathing, trembling and looking fearful. What do you do?
As the prevalence of anxiety and depression rises among youth, scenarios like this are becoming commonplace at camps nationwide, but many counselors are not equipped with the knowledge or tools to support young campers.
Thanks to a new program introduced by The Menninger Clinic last summer, staff at YMCA Camp Cullen, a beloved Houston summer camp, can now turn to Menninger for help. With the support of donors, Menninger offers on-site mental health services at Camp Cullen, including education and training for camp staff, as well as personalized therapy and group sessions for the camp community.
“Our struggles don’t go on vacation while we are at summer camp,” explains Kate Lykes, LCSW, Menninger’s director of Community Collaborations for Adolescents and Families. Having spent childhood summers as both a camper and counselor herself, she sees camp as transformative. “Camp can be a life-changing experience. The challenge of trying new things with a team in a fun environment is an ideal backdrop for learning skills that prepare kids for life after camp.” 
Nestled in 530 acres of woodland northeast of Houston near Lake Livingston, Camp Cullen provides outdoor activities for more than 1,200 campers aged 7–17, including those from low-income backgrounds, each year.
In 2023, Menninger provided almost 70 hours of therapy at the camp, connecting more than 30 adolescent campers and young adult staff members with essential mental health resources. The impact went beyond counseling sessions. Staff felt more comfortable mentoring campers and navigating challenges, choosing to stay at the camp instead of quitting when overwhelmed. They also found the services particularly helpful for quickly processing events as they occurred, rather than waiting until the end of summer when they returned home. Parents also liked the easy access to mental health services for their children.
“I have worked in camping for 10 years now, and mental health has become more and more talked about,” says Camp Cullen’s Summer Camp Director Chance Orton. “Having a true professional support system in action this past summer was incredible for our staff and campers. I was glad to see it make a difference and know that it truly is a necessary resource.” 
Encouraged by positive results, camp directors plan to have Menninger back for the upcoming summer season at Camp Cullen. With our supporters' help, we're set to expand mental health training and education to camp staff. Our goal is to equip staff to identify signs of anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms, empowering them to provide support. Through our collaboration with the YMCA, we will help bolster the lasting mental well-being of Camp Cullen campers and staff for years to come.