As much as Jojo radiated life, few people knew about her deep struggle with mental illness, which Spielberg likens to “cancer of the brain.” “We feel like we’re experiencing feelings deeply,” she says, but “people who have bipolar [disorder] have a whole different channel. And that’s for creativity and for genius and for their gifts, as well as for the pain. So that’s why they’re so vulnerable.”
Lily Tender, who attended the camp, was among those aware of Jojo’s struggle. Tender, 19, was a senior at Whitman and Jojo was a sophomore when they met through Best Buddies and got to know each other better through an animal advocacy group at school. When the group rode to the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Jojo opened up. Tender says she, too, was dealing with mental health struggles, so it was comforting and inspirational to hear Jojo speak about her own battle.
After Jojo’s freshman year at The Academy of the Holy Cross, an all-girls school in Kensington, her mental health declined and drinking was a problem. She knew she needed help and asked for it, her mom says.
At 15, Jojo spent eight weeks at a therapeutic wilderness program in Asheville, North Carolina, where she camped, prepared meals, and went on hikes in the snow. Spielberg, who is divorced from Jojo’s father, says her daughter embraced the experience and was proud of her outdoor skills. But when the program ended, she wasn’t ready to go home.
Spielberg found a therapeutic boarding school for Jojo, also in North Carolina, for the next six months. When it was over, Jojo was eager to come back to Bethesda. Looking for a fresh start after eight months away, she enrolled as a sophomore at Whitman, which Carina enjoyed before graduating in 2017. Spielberg says she and Jojo didn’t want her return to life in Bethesda to be too difficult, so they didn’t pack her schedule with Advanced Placement courses. Jojo played junior varsity volleyball that fall, and started cheerleading. “She had just made the team,” before she died, Spielberg says. “She never got to even wear the uniform.”
No one knew what to expect on the first day of Camp Jojo last July. Some of Jojo’s Whitman friends came, including Justin, Kate and Lily, and other campers and counselors arrived from Colorado, Texas, Arizona and other states. Many of the 13 campers didn’t know each other. Several had lost someone close to them to suicide. For some, the mental health struggle was their own.
After introductions and icebreakers, the group went on its first hike. That night, there was a candlelight chat. Everyone sat in a circle in the dark and passed around a small lamp for each speaker to hold. “I’m here in honor of Jojo—and for Sonya,” Justin, now 17, recalls saying. It was jarring for him to hear people describe their experience with suicide and suicidal thoughts. Two brothers lost their father; one teen lost her boyfriend. Justin tried to stay stoic but couldn’t. “I started crying so hard,” he says. “I was sobbing. Everyone was sobbing.”
Camp Jojo continued with five more days of fireside chats, hikes and activities such as archery and fishing. A 5-mile dedication hike on Wednesday was an emotional milestone for some. “It’s done silently to allow deep mental processing,” Van Egbert, 39, says.