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Campus ministries and advisors unite to address mental health

ST. PAUL, Min. — As student anxiety soars, campus ministries are trying to help, not only by offering the comfort of faith and community, but also by collaborating with mental health professionals.

On Ivy League campuses, major public institutions, and religious colleges, chaplains and psychologists are joining forces based on a wealth of research showing that religion and spirituality can alleviate psychological distress by providing group support and building personal resilience.

“We’re good partners and routinely refer people back and forth,” said Calvin Chin, director of counseling and mental health services at Princeton University, which occupies a third of its undergraduate students. “We really think holistically about how we can support a student with what they need to lead a successful and happy life.”

On a spring Saturday afternoon just before graduation week, Sadaf Shier, the Muslim chaplain at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, led an end-of-Ramadan celebration where students of all faiths or none engaged in stress-reducing activities like painting flower pots and hand henna decoration.

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Shier and the university’s Protestant pastor, Neil Ellingson, mingled with dozens of students on the lawn in front of the Catholic chapel.

“My primary commitment is to create a climate where students feel that their religious identity is legitimate,” Shier said. “That directly supports mental health.”

Ellingson also saw a direct connection between belief and mental health: belief in a higher being leads students to feel that “you are loved by the cosmos and matter in that big sense.”

But he added the challenge is to expand the ministry’s reach.

“Students who tend to come through the door are already hooked up. How do you connect with those who aren’t?” he said. “The time students need this stuff most, they don’t look for it.”

The need is indeed critical. In December, midway through the freshman year, when most colleges returned to face-to-face teaching, the US surgeon general issued a recommendation for the country adolescent psychiatric crisis. It found that everything from sadness to suicide plans increased by more than 40% in the decade leading up to COVID-19 – and that the wider impact of the pandemic has been “devastating”.

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According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, counselors are seeing the strain becoming more widespread and more severe — particularly anxiety, which has overtaken stress and depression in college students.

“Our faculty says … the students seem to be a lot more overwhelmed and a lot more anxious,” particularly in terms of coping with demands and social interactions, said Cindy Bruns, director of counseling and licensed psychologist at Central Washington University.

By sponsoring supportive community events where students can relearn how to converse in real life rather than always curated social media—a skill often lost in pandemic isolation—campus ministries can make a big impact to have.

At Yale University, Omer Bajwa, an imam and leader of Muslim life, has noted a dramatic increase in attendance at Friday prayers and Ramadan events compared to pre-pandemic times. While he said the Class of 2025 has almost double the usual number of self-identifying Muslim students, he believes attendance also depends on how relevant chaplains have become.

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“We’re trained to be good listeners, to ask reflective questions, and to connect with people where they are,” Bajwa said.

Across the country at the University of Southern California, home to 50,000 enrolled students, there were record numbers at spirituality and wellness events — Shabbat dinners, Buddhist meditations, Catholic masses and pet therapy sessions.

“We had 250 kids come out to pet two therapy dogs. We usually have 20 children,” said Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life. “They wanted so badly to be in a context of meaning with one another that in the fall religious and spiritual life suddenly boomed.”

Even before the pandemic, desperation seemed to define Generation Z, whose members were born roughly between 1997 and 2012.

“The students no longer asked me, ‘How should I live?’ They started asking me, ‘Why should I live?’” Soni said.

Chaplains and counselors have worked together for years, he said, but although USC has bolstered its wellness team by adding 60 new counselors since 2008, wait times for appointments remain at about three weeks.

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Nevertheless, pastors and psychologists are quick to emphasize that one cannot replace the other – Especially since the demand is so great. By acting as long-term mentors for students, chaplains can free up counseling to deal with critical care such as panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, hosts game nights and dances, and also pays for weekly college counseling in its dorm, which is also open to non-Catholics.

“We’re not just an activity center, we want to be a place where people can ask the big questions,” said its director, Rev. Dan Andrews. “Having no answers is a major cause of the anxiety they experience.”

David deBoer, head of the counseling center at Loyola’s wellness center, sees the special role of campus pastoral care in this search for the soul.

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“Campus ministry can engage students on a more existential level and address deeper questions for which mental health language has limitations,” he says. For example, a chaplain can help smooth out the dissonance that traditionally educated Muslim or Catholic students might feel when they develop a sexual orientation or gender identity that is not welcomed by their faith, he added.

Many experts argue that therapy should value students’ engagement with spirituality as a general part of their identity. It would help uncover potential coping mechanisms, said David Hodge, a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University.

It also prevents them from being misdiagnosed — a Catholic student who has just received the Sacrament of Reconciliation could say “I am OK with dying” but not be suicidal, said Charis Davidson, a public health professor and researcher Mercy College.

Her studies showed that cooperation between campus pastoral care and counseling at public universities is still “definitely the exception”, but the current crisis could perhaps bring more together.

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Also of vital importance is expanding contact with students who are reluctant to approach faith leaders. Vanessa Gomez Brake, a secular humanist and associate dean of religious and spiritual life at USC, said expanding spiritual well-being offerings to religious and non-religious students should become a priority for on-campus service.

This year, for example, she and the counseling center founded a group for people who are dealing with grief caused by the pandemic.

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the Catholic Student Center has been trying to keep as many community programs going as possible, even during 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 the University of St. Thomas, three students worked around the table offering glitter, decals and ribbons to decorate mason jars and hijabs. Salma Nadir, senior graduate and secretary of the Muslim Student Association, said Shier, the chaplain, has “saved us so many times” with events like this one that foster a welcoming community.

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“It relieved my stress to be able to talk to new people,” agrees freshman Arianna Norals.

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The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/01/campus-ministries-counselors-join-to-tackle-mental-health/ Campus ministries and advisors unite to address mental health

Sarah Y. Kim

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