Campus services, counselors join the fight against mental health

ST. Paul, Minnesota (AP) – As student anxiety grows rapidly, campus ministries seek to help by not only offering the comfort of faith and community, but also creating collaborations with mental health professionals.

On the ivy League campuses, major government agencies and religious colleges, chaplains and psychologists come together, backed by rich research showing that religion and spirituality can alleviate mental disorders by providing group support and increasing personal resilience.

“We are good partners, and we visit regularly here and there,” said Calvin Chin, director of counseling and psychological services at Princeton University, which is used by a third of students. “We really think holistically about how to support the student that they need to lead a successful and fun.”

In the spring Saturday nearing the end of the week, Sadaf Sheer, a Muslim chaplain at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, oversaw the celebration of the end of Ramadan, where students of all denominations or none engaged in stress reduction activities. like painting vases and decorating hands with henna.

Shearer and Protestant pastor Neil Ellingson mingled with dozens of students on the lawn near the Catholic chapel.

“My main occupation is creating a climate in which students feel that their religious identity is legitimate,” Sheare said. “It directly supports mental health.”

Ellingson also saw a direct link between faith and mental health: belief in a higher being makes students feel that “you are loved by the cosmos, and you matter in this great sense.”

But he added that the problem is expanding the ministry’s reach.

“Students who tend to walk through doors are already included in the network. How to contact those who are not? ” he said. “At a time when students need this material the most, they’re not looking for it.”

The need is really critical. In December, in the middle of the first academic year, when most colleges returned to personal learning, the U.S. Chief Surgeon issued a recommendation on the mental health crisis of the country’s youth. It was found that everything from grief to suicide plans had increased by more than 40% in the decade before COVID-19 – and that the continued impact of the pandemic was “devastating”.

According to the Association of Directors of Counseling Centers for Universities and Colleges, counselors see that stress is becoming more common and severe – especially anxiety that has overtaken stress and depression among students.

“Our faculty say that … students seem to be much more overwhelmed, they feel much more anxious,” especially about coping with demands and social interactions, said Cindy Bruns, director of counseling and a licensed psychologist at Central Washington University.

Encouraging supportive community activities where students can learn to communicate in real life rather than in social networks that are always monitored – a skill often lost in isolation from the pandemic – serving on campus can have a big impact.

At Yale University, Omar Bajwa, imam and head of Muslim life, noticed a sharp increase in attendance at Friday prayers and Ramadan events compared to the time before the pandemic. While he said that in the class of 2025 there are almost twice as many Muslim students who identify themselves, he believes that attendance also depends on how important chaplains have become.

“We are taught to be good listeners, to ask sensible questions, to communicate with people where they are,” Bajwa said.

Across the country, the University of Southern California, home to 50,000 students, has seen record numbers of spirituality and wellness activities such as Saturday dinners, Buddhist meditations, Catholic Masses and pet treatments.

“We had 250 children to pet two therapist dogs. We usually have 20 children, ”said Varun Sony, dean of religious life. “They were so desperate to be with each other in the context of understanding that in the fall, religious and spiritual life suddenly erupted.”

Even before the pandemic, despair seemed to be marked by Generation Z, whose members were born between 1997 and 2012.

“Students no longer asked me, ‘How do I live?’ They began to ask: “Why should I live?” Said Sonny.

Chaplains and advisers have been coming together for years, he said, but although the USC has strengthened its wellness team by adding 60 new consultants since 2008, the waiting time for admission remains about three weeks.

However, chaplains and psychologists are quick to emphasize that one cannot replace the other – especially since demand is very high. By serving as long-term student teachers, chaplains can be counseled to deal with criticism like panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, offers play evenings and dances, and pays for weekly student counseling at its residence, which is also open to non-Catholics.

“We’re not just a hub, we want to be a place where people can ask important questions,” said its director, the Rev. Dan Andrews. “The main reason for their anxiety is the lack of answers.”

David de Boer, director of the counseling center at the Loyola Wellness Center, sees in this soulful search a special role of ministry on campus.

“Serving on campus can draw students to a more existential level, get deeper questions for which the language of mental health has limitations,” he says. For example, a chaplain can help reconcile the dissonance that Muslim or Catholic students with traditional education may experience if the development of sexual orientation or gender identity is not welcomed by their faith, he added.

Many experts argue that therapy should evaluate students ’interactions with spirituality as a common part of their identity. That would help uncover possible mechanisms of struggle, said David Hodge, a professor at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.

It also prevents misdiagnosis – a Catholic student who has just received the Sacrament of Reconciliation may say, “I’m fine dying,” but will not commit suicide, said Cheris Davidson, a professor and public health researcher at Mercy College.

Her research has shown that collaboration between campus ministry and counseling is still an “definitely exception” in public universities, but the current crisis may unite more.

It is also important to expand the coverage of students who do not want to turn to religious leaders. Vanessa Gomez Break, a secular humanist and deputy dean for religious and spiritual life at USC, said expanding spiritual wellness offerings for religious and non-religious students should be a priority for on-campus service.

This year, for example, it partnered with a counseling center to launch a group for those dealing with pandemic-related grief.

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the Catholic Student Center has tried to support as many community programs as possible even in the darkest moments of the pandemic, said its director, the Rev. Eric Nielsen.

“I had an atheist who just wanted to hang out,” he recalled, adding that the student said it helped him feel a little less depressed.

At the recent Eid celebration at St. Thomas University, three students worked at a table, offering sequins, stickers and ribbons to decorate cans and hijabs. Salma Nadir, a graduate and secretary of the Muslim Students Association, said Chaplain Sheare “has saved us so many times” with such activities that promote a friendly community.

“My stress contributed to me being able to talk to new people,” agreed first-year student Ariana Norals.


Religion Coverage Associated Press is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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