May was National Mental Health Awareness Month. The goal was and is to take down the stigma associated with mental health challenges. We have a long way to go. In fact, in most churches communities, mental illness is one of the last frontiers in proactive conversation. Most churches can now talk about brokenness in our bodies. We support our families struggling with cancer, approaching with compassion when we see the scars or the loss of hair. We ramp up our care for those in our church community with physical challenges, making sure they are included in worship, have accessible restrooms, and adequate parking. In recent years there has been more receptivity to embrace those with broken relationships as well running Divorce Care groups and single parenting seminars to work on healing rather than shaming. There is still, however, a stigma around mental health. Those fighting the battle learn to be protective rather than transparent in order not to risk their reputation, their health care, their inclusion, or even their chances of employment.
And yet…our college students are openly struggling. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) indicated—pre COVID—that more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past three years. Colleges across the country have reported an alarming increase in the prevalence and severity of mental health issues experienced by students. Almost 73 percent of students who live with mental health challenges experience a crisis of mental health while on campus. Now, as many as one in three students are suffering from new or escalating mental health issues without the familiar support of their campus cohort.
AND THEN CAME COVID
Mental health challenges for our college students were already skyrocketing before COVID hit, making our students especially vulnerable to further escalation. In the May 11 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Brown highlighted the crisis, citing a survey by the advocacy group Active Minds, who heard from more than 2,000 college students in April 2020. Here’s a snapshot of what they discovered about the impact of COVID-19:
- 80% of students said that COVID has negatively impacted their mental health; a fifth said the change was dramatic;
- 91% surveyed struggled with heightened stress or anxiety;
- 81% were experiencing significant disappointment, grief, or sadness; and
- 80% of these students were battling loneliness or feelings of isolation.
If they were already struggling, our students sunk a few more notches. If COVID fear didn’t get to them, the financial setbacks (48% affected) and relocation (56% had to move) took a toll. Even if our students didn’t show it on the outside, the results speak for themselves. In the survey, 85% struggled to stay focused on their studies, 76% couldn’t find a routine they could maintain to stay on track, and 63% felt disconnected—even if they were living at home with their families who love them. “We’ll just get to the end of this academic season and it will get better,” we all thought….
AND THEN CAME GEORGE
I wept at my kitchen table Saturday on a ZOOM call with my two sisters, sharing my broken heart for George Floyd, his family, our city, our country, and those led to violence born out of anger. I recalled when the three of us were college-aged and I hit a time that I was so sure that we were facing the ultimate destruction of our society that I questioned whether we would live long enough to choose careers, find a soulmate, or raise a family. Years have taught me resilience, but our students don’t have a lot of years yet. The violence in our city has fanned corona fears into a larger bonfire of social distress. What was depressing before has become debilitating for many of our students. So, how can we help them cope with mental health issues exacerbated by both the COVID and our cultural crises?
IT IS TIME TO CAST OFF THE STIGMA
On the journey to staking down a frontier claim, pioneer women often found that they had to let go of things that had lost their relevance or were too weighty on the journey. Not enough room to use the wagon for shelter? Time to cast off the bulky furniture and make new to fit the need after you found your claim. Wagon still too heavy and using only tins for dishes? Time to let go of the idea of fine china being useful on the Oregon Trail. The pioneer’s needs dictated what was left beside the trail that they would never return to. Resting lightly on the earth was far more important to their new life than weighty possessions. Resting more lightly in our minds may mean casting off some notions that are not compatible with solid mental health. What are some ideas that we can leave behind on our journey?
Cast off the idea that the absence of mental struggles means you are normal. Imagine being that pioneer family leaving everything you have known behind for a journey to a never-seen place with no guarantees. Talk about uncertainty! It would be an unusual person who navigated that experience stress free. The fact is, each of us encounters some level of anxiety, depression, or escalating fears. It’s a continuum rather than a presence or absence. Accepting that mental challenges are actually normal can allow us to empathize more with those whose mental health challenges are bigger, harder, and more pervasive than our own—even if that is our own student.
Pitch the tunnel vision. Ignoring what you don’t want to see does not make danger go away. In my Saturday conversation reflecting on the George Floyd tragedy, my sisters and I recalled an experience we all remembered from early childhood with remarkable clarity. We were all in the blue Chevy wagon on a trip across the state we grew up in. As we came through a small town square, we hoped to run into a diner for lunch. Instead, we encountered a large group of clansmen in full garb, gathering for a KKK rally in broad daylight. My Dad calmly parked the car (windows shut and doors locked), and used the opportunity to teach us why these men (and one of their dogs) were wearing strange white costumes. He educated us about clansmen treating certain people unfairly, sometimes inciting violence, and that if our skin were a different color, we would not be able to observe them in peace. Mostly, I learned that talking about trouble is the way we start solving the problem, whether that is mental health or racism. Spend time in conversation. Asking your students to explain where they are on the continuum of grief, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and depression in response to what’s happening in our world might be a good way to begin.
Toss aside the idea that asking for help shows weakness. There’s a reason the pioneers circled the wagons at night. The shared resources and safety in the group meant they all had a better chance of making it. That’s being smart, not weak. As you talk with your student, assess their needs. To manage mental health, some of us need help to find routines. Some need a partner to get them engaged in physical activity. Some need help planning for connection, or making time for self-care. Some need professional care. If you aren’t equipped to provide the help that’s needed, it may be time to call in your physician, a licensed counselor, a support group, or psychiatric care. The Counseling Center at UNW is providing tele-therapy for qualifying students and coaching on finding appropriate care for those that they are not able to serve directly. Christian organizations who are beginning to cross that last frontier are beginning to provide solid mental health resources as well. For example, AXIS Ministries hosted a four-day Mental Health Summit in May with a great line-up of experts. It can still be viewed at: https://axis.org/the-mental-health-summit.
Throw away the notion that mental health struggles rob a person of their value. I saw Michael Phelps on national television talking about his struggle with anxiety and depression. He’s far from perfect himself, but the voice of a multi-gold-medal winner lends credibility to the fact that mental health challenges do not keep an individual from making a positive mark on their culture. Some of our greatest authors and artists have been those who wrestled with mental health. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven, poet Anne Sexton, and artist Vincent van Gogh were all brilliant people who also wrestled with mental illness. Creativity is often birthed in the battle with one’s own mind and emotions. Remind your student that none of us are perfect, but all of us are of ultimate value.
Guard against hopelessness jumping in your wagon. I have a picture of a locust on the wall in my bathroom. Seriously. It's not traditionally lovely (although it is a vintage print), but I find it encouraging. Okay...I'll explain. More than 10 years ago, our family encountered tragedy in a way that forever changed our lives. The aftermath brought with it a deep, ongoing struggle with mental health for one of our dear ones. That ten years can look like forever on a bad day, but the locust on my wall reminds me each morning to choose hope. It points me to Joel 2:25, which states with confidence, “The Lord will redeem the years the locusts ate.” God is at work, and we know His plans are ultimately for our good and His glory. Therefore, those things that are a struggle—even those things that take the shape of a plague like COVID-19, systemic racism, and struggles with mental health—are still within the Lord’s grasp. Meanwhile, in the midst of the battle, I choose to trust in His divine wisdom, timing, and purpose, knowing that in the end, all will be revealed and we will be fully restored.