Summer blues: Meyers DNP student investigates if mental health education for camp counselors helps campers

July 07, 2020

Schafer examines camper in infirmaryUntil COVID, Robin Schafer DNP ‘21, BS ‘99 used to spend seven weeks each summer as the health director for two busy summer camps on Lake Raquette, in New York — with sailboats, boat docks, log cabins, and mess halls pretty enough for a postcard. While kids aged 6 to 15 were busy swimming, archery, tennis, a western night, campfires, and theatrical productions, Schafer headed the infirmary, treating common summertime medical problems like poison ivy, bug bites, and sprained ankles as well as a rising number of mental health issues.

“I’ve seen a lot of increase in mental health disorders, a lot of kids who are on more medications these days, and a lack of understanding of what a mental health disorder is in the general population,” said Schafer.

Schafer’s dual role at camp has been to provide healthcare and sensitize counselors and staff to better understand campers in terms of any mental health disorders and complaints they may have.

“Campers are still experiencing mental health disorders even though they’re not in school,” explained Schafer. “An irritable 8-year-old might be sad or depressed, as opposed to just in a bad mood. [Mental health issues] really manifest themselves in different ways in younger kids. I think that’s very important for counselors and staff to know."

During the school year, Schafer is at Iona College, in New Rochelle, NY, serving as the director of health services and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She also has a private practice specializing in adolescent and young adult psychiatric issues. “I usually spend three days a week at health services and two days a week at counseling seeing patients. Definitely, medical and psych go hand-in-hand.”

Pediatric nursing was not originally Schafer’s top career choice. But after working a few years as a financial consultant at Bear Stearns and Bloomberg Financial Markets, she discovered nursing was her true calling and applied to the NYU nursing program.

At NYU, Schafer Campers sailing on Raquette Lakequickly settled on a pediatric focus: “I seem to be able to listen quite well to that population and really hear what they’re saying, as opposed to what I’m thinking. I like that population a lot . . .  seeing them through their lifespan and watching them grow.” Schafer now holds both an MSN in pediatric nursing from Columbia University and an MSN in psychiatric nursing from Stony Brook University — and she is working on her DNP at NYU Meyers.

Building on her eight years at Raquette Lake Camps, Schafer has made this work the subject of her dissertation: “I’m trying to figure out if an educational program for counselors and staff at a summer camp helps in improving their knowledge of mental health disorders.”

Inspiration for Schafer is seeing her young patients grow and blossom into their healthiest, truest, best selves — with the personalized counseling and medical support they need.

“With each individual patient that I help, I know there is a big ripple effect. I’m changing this child’s life, so they will go on to do something other than what they normally would have done — and maybe that’ll change someone else’s life. It certainly changes the future, which makes a big difference.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 NYU Nursing magazine.