ST. Paul, Min. – As students’ anxiety grows skyrocketing, on-campus services seek to help by not only offering the benefits of faith and community, but also collaborating with mental health professionals.
On Ivy League campuses, large community institutions and religious-based colleges, priests and psychologists come together, informed by extensive research showing that religion and spirituality can alleviate mental suffering by providing group support and personal resilience.
“We are good partners and we routinely look back and forth,” said Calvin Chin, director of counseling and psychological services at Princeton University, which one-third of students use. “We really think holistically about how to support a student, what they need to lead a successful and satisfying life.”
One spring Saturday afternoon, near the final week, Sadaf Sheer, a Muslim cleric at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, led the end-of-Ramadan celebration, where students of all religions or none practiced stress-reducing activities such as painting flower pots and hand decorating with henna.
Shire and Protestant pastor Neil Ellingson mingled with dozens of students on the lawn in front of the Catholic chapel.
“My main commitment is to provide a climate in which students feel their religious identity is legitimate,” Sheare said. “It directly supports mental health.”
Ellingson also sees a direct link between faith and mental health: Belief in a higher being makes students feel that “you are loved by space and matter in this great sense.”
But he added that the challenge is to expand the ministry’s reach.
“Students who usually walk in the door are already involved. How do you connect with those who are not? ”He said. “At a time when students need these things the most, they don’t look for them.”
The need is really critical. In December, in the middle of the first academic year, when most colleges returned to personal education, the chief surgeon of the United States issued advice on the mental health crisis of young people in the country. He found that everything from grief to suicide plans had risen by more than 40 percent in the decade before COVID-19 – and that the further impact of the pandemic was “devastating”.
Counselors see that distress is becoming more widespread and severe – especially anxiety, which has overtaken stress and depression among students, according to the Association of Directors of University and College Counseling Centers.
“Our faculty says … students seem much more overwhelmed, much more anxious,” especially about coping with requirements and social interactions, said Cindy Bruns, director of counseling and a licensed psychologist at Central Washington University.
By promoting supportive community events where students can learn to communicate in real life rather than always on select social media – a skill often lost in pandemic isolation – campus services can have a big impact.
At Yale University, Omar Bajwa, an imam and director of Muslim life, has seen a dramatic increase in attendance at Friday prayers and Ramadan events since before the pandemic. Although he said the 2025 class has almost twice the number of self-identified Muslim students, he believes attendance is also determined by how appropriate the priests have become.
“We are trained to be good listeners, to ask reflective questions, to communicate with people where they are,” Bajva said.
Across the country, the University of Southern California, home to 50,000 enrolled students, has seen record numbers of spiritual and wellness events, including Shabbat dinners, Buddhist meditations, Catholic liturgies and pet treatment sessions.
“We had 250 children who came out to pet two therapy dogs. We usually have 20 children, “said Varun Soni, dean of religious life. “They were so desperate to be with each other in the context of creating meaning that suddenly religious and spiritual life flourished in the fall.”
Even before the pandemic, despair seemed to be marked by Generation Z, whose members were born between approximately 1997 and 2012.
“The students no longer asked me, ‘How do I live?’ They started asking me, ‘Why live?'” Sonny said.
Chaplains and advisers have been coming together for years, he said, but although the USC has strengthened its wellness team by adding 60 new advisers since 2008, the waiting time for appointments remains about three weeks.
However, priests and psychologists are quick to point out that one cannot replace the other – especially since the demand is so great. By serving as long-term mentors to students, priests can release counseling to deal with critical care such as panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, offers game and dance evenings, and also pays for weekly student counseling sessions at its residence, which is also open to non-Catholics.
“We are not just a center for activities, we want to be a place where people ask big questions,” said its director, the Rev. Dan Andrews. “Having no answers is the main reason for their anxiety.”
David de Boer, director of consultations at the Loyola Wellness Center, sees this study of the soul as the special role of ministry on campus.
“Campus ministry can engage students on a more existential level, to reach deeper issues for which the language of mental health has limitations,” he said. For example, a priest can help reconcile the dissonance that traditionally educated Muslim or Catholic students may experience if they develop a sexual orientation or gender identity that is not welcomed by their faith, he added.
Many experts argue that therapy should assess students’ commitment to spirituality as an integral part of their identity. That would help uncover potential coping mechanisms, said David Hodge, a professor at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.
It also prevents their misdiagnosis – a Catholic student who has just received the sacrament of reconciliation may say “I’m fine with death” but not commit suicide, said Charis Davidson, professor and public health researcher at Mercy. College.
Her research found that cooperation between the campus ministry and counseling was still a “definite exception” in public universities, but that the current crisis could unite more.
It is also crucial to expand the range of students who do not want to turn to religious leaders. Vanessa Gomez Break, a secular humanist and assistant dean for religious and spiritual life at the USC, said expanding spiritual wellness proposals for both religious and non-religious students should be a priority for campus ministry.
This year, for example, she partnered with the counseling center to launch a group for those handling the pandemic grief.
At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the Catholic Student Center has tried to maintain as many public programs as possible even during the darkest moments of the pandemic, said its director, the Rev. Eric Nielsen.
“An atheist came in who just wanted to hang out,” he recalled, adding that the student said it helped him feel a little less depressed.
At Eid’s recent celebration at St. Thomas University, three students worked at the table, offering glitter, decals and ribbons to decorate jars and hijabs. Salma Nadir, a senior graduate and secretary of the Muslim Students’ Association, said Father Sheare has “saved us so many times” with events like this that promote a friendly community.
“It was good for my stress to be able to talk to new people,” agreed first-year student Ariana Norals.
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