College Student Mental Health: What’s Faith Got To Do With It?

Marjorie Malpiede / July 14, 2020

College and religion don’t always go together.  Young people questioning their traditions and searching for their identities are less likely to fall in line among the faithful. But at a time when students are reporting mental illness and emotional distress as never before, three campus ministry leaders explain how the role of religion can be a powerful salve for many.

The insights from each of the leaders reflect the different dynamics of their respective campuses but their messages about the role of religion in the mental health of young people are remarkably similar.  They also expressed compatible comments on what may be causing the issues students are reporting.  Note: these interviews took place in early March, prior to the impact of COVID-19 and the upset over continued racial injustice in this country.  

Father Peter Martyr Yungwirth, O.P., Providence College

Father Peter Martyr Yungwirth is a Dominican friar and the head of campus ministry at Providence College, a Catholic, liberal arts school in the capital city of Rhode Island.  Providence was founded in 1917 by the Dominican Order to provide a higher education opportunity for Catholics and Jews who were barred from the more elite institutions in the state. The school’s social justice roots remain strong as the friars/professors continue to teach service to God and neighbor along with their respective subject matter.

Father Yungwirth fulfills two roles at Providence; one as head chaplain for the college, which he describes as seeing to the spiritual needs of the entire school community (including 4,000 students); the other is as head of Campus Ministry, which involves leading a group of 1000 or so students who are active participants in searching for God.

At 35, Yungwirth is not so removed from the typical experiences of his students.  Having only decided to enter the priesthood his senior year in college, he can relate to their stresses, be it relationships or career planning.  He notes one exception: the angst today’s students feel that is often generated by social media.  Yungwirth reads and thinks a lot about this subject and while he embraces the value of technology platforms (particularly now that he runs the campus ministry remotely), he believes what students see and don’t see on social media drives much of their distress.

“They’re living in an age where they are evaluating their happiness and their worth based on what they are seeing in other people,” he said.  “If they are not living up to that joy, authentic or not, they get anxious.  They start to feel sad.  They start to get worried.”

According to Yungwirth, faith in God can help.

“The Lord can be super helpful in trying to navigate how to prepare our students to see something [other] than just how many friends or likes they have.  If you see yourself as a loved child of God – if you start there – then you can better cope with all of these environmental versions of who you are.”

Yungwirth says that religion can be particularly important for college students who are in the prime period of identity formation.

“Our relationship with God becomes the pie pan that holds all of the other pieces of our identity together.  It supports them. It strengthens them.  It helps them flourish.  This can be a really helpful thing for students who are working through all sorts of questions regarding identity and intersectionality.”

Yungwirth said a belief in a higher power can also be an antidote for what he sees as an unhealthy sense of control in some students who overschedule themselves with curated activities aimed at reaching ever-higher goals.  He provides an example of one student whose college experience changed through her involvement in the campus ministry.

“Before she came to Providence, she was not at all active in her faith. When she first got here, she was so determined to craft her own future that she would not get much sleep because she was studying all of the time, building a social life - trying so hard to be in control of it all.”

After joining the campus ministry, she met with other students bi-weekly and joined discussions, led by peer ministers, about how faith impacts college life.

“I saw a big change in her when she began to trust in God’s ordering of things,” he said.  “It is not that she just sat back and let things happen, but once she relinquished her attempt to control every aspect of her life, she found an immense sense of peace.”

Yungwirth noted that service can be a positive factor in student mental health, particularly when intense self-introspection becomes problematic.  While service learning is a component of most colleges and universities, it is strongly emphasized and easily accessible in religious schools like Providence with strong service missions.

“One thing that service allows you to do is to get out of yourself and interact with others,” he said.  “It kind of forces you to see that there is something outside of you that is beautiful and good and can help you in those moments when you’re struggling to see those things.”

 

Rabbi Liza Stern, Harvard Divinity School, formerly of Brandeis University

Rabbi Liza Stern might agree with many of Father Yungwirth’s observations, despite their credal differences.  Stern is a congregational rabbi in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a counselor to Jewish students at the Harvard Divinity School where she also teaches.  For many years, she was a chaplain at Brandeis University, a highly competitive school with a strong Jewish tradition, also in Massachusetts.

When asked how much of her role at Brandeis had to do with student mental health, Stern said, “As chaplains, we really thought about how we could be helpful to the students who were so overwhelmed by what was happening to them.  I can’t say where religion begins and where it ends but we tried to create opportunities for students to be spiritually centered.”

Stern said she saw students coming to college more isolated, and less equipped to cope with being on their own. She saw them as less able to make new bonds given their digital attachments to home and friends and believes these factors have led to a host of mental health problems.

Stern called Brandies a purpose-driven campus where students were often heavily involved in cause-related activities.  While she, like Yungwirth, sees the value of service, Stern observed what can be its downside. “Sometimes I would encounter students who would value themselves based on how many things they were doing, but if you stripped that all away, they didn’t know who they were;  They were caught in that ‘I am what I do’ phenomenon.”

As a counter to that, Stern said she and the other chaplains tried to reverse the momentum. “Where the campus was encouraging students to ‘go, go, go,’ we were encouraging them to ‘slow down, slow down, slow down.’”

Stern said that while the counseling center is “the tried and true resource for students who are experiencing problems,” the holistic work of chaplains is different.  “We want students to learn how to have deep conversations with one another and to think about the big picture stuff like ‘Who am I?  How did I get to be this way?’ Chaplains want to know who you really are.  You can call it a therapeutic resource, but it’s not because we’re helping them with psychological issues as much as we are saying, ‘We love you.’”

Like her peers, Stern believes religion is particularly important in helping young people understand they are part of something bigger than themselves when fear and uncertainty abound.  “It is a source of inspiration in a world that seems to be crumbling in so many ways.  They see Democracy crumbling.  They see the planet crumbling.  When you consider the supernovas these young people are living with, religion provides a possibility for hopefulness.”

Stern calls different religions “languages communicating with God,” and said she and her fellow chaplains used the aspects of established religions – such as peace, love, and community – to soothe some of the stress students were experiencing without focusing on one particular faith. A big part of their work was bringing students together.

“Every month, we put out newsletters to the whole campus saying ‘this is what’s happening – come celebrate with us,’” she said, describing weekly dinners and a host of activities for students to break from their busy schedules.  Brandeis has active student-led Jewish groups with a number of well-established opportunities for practice through the Hillel.  While providing a comfortable and familiar environment for these students, Stern said the chaplains also sought opportunities for the majority on campus who consider themselves secular.

“My work as a rabbi is in Judaism, but on campus my agenda is really inter-faith.  I want to provide the comfort of traditional religions, but I don’t want students to stay there because I feel like if they leave college without having eaten together and learned from one another then they are not going to feel like whole, centered people.”

The chaplain’s outreach included the many students who profess not to believe in God.

“I remember talking to a student once and I asked her, ‘Do you believe in God?’ and she said ‘No, I don’t believe in God.’ And I said, ‘Okay, if you believed in God, what would God want you to do in this moment?’ and she burst into tears.  That was very informative to me about students’ yearning for some transcendent sense of being okay.”

 

Dean Richardson, Howard University

The Reverend Dr. Bernard Richardson is the fourth Dean of the historic Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel (Rankin Chapel) at Howard University in Washington, DC. For 24 years, the ordained minister and mental health professional has presided over one of the most important pulpits in the country.  Each Sunday during the academic year, renown guest speakers are invited to provide the sermon to a gathering of the Howard University community that includes students, staff, faculty, alumni and members of the broader community.  These Sunday services garner a large national and international audience through their broadcast on WHUR radio, YouTube, and other social media outlets.

In addition to great faith leaders – from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bishop Desmond Tutu – the Rankin Chapel pulpit has been used by U.S presidents, foreign heads of state, and exiled political activists.  While Howard is not a religious school, Rankin Chapel serves as the epicenter of religious life and is transparent about the role it aims to play in the spiritual life of Howard students.

According to its web site, “Most importantly, the Chapel has served as the spiritual haven for the vast number of students who leave the safety of home to enter the different world of college.  The Chapel serves to ease the pain of transition and provides a community of worship for the displaced worshipers.”

Dean Richardson is proud to note that the legacy of Rankin Chapel is to be the starting point for many of the significant movements that have changed Howard University and the world beyond its gates.  On Sundays, Rankin Chapel is a place of great oration, beautiful music in the full range of the Black church tradition, connections to the many constituent groups of the university community through “calls to chapel,” as well as special celebratory services. Much of the Chapel’s work extends beyond Sundays, both locally and globally, through the community service programs coordinated through the Office of the Dean of the Chapel, reflecting the strong tradition of social justice at Howard University and within the Black church.

Richardson sees the Chapel’s role in community service programs as a unique benefit for the university and a major link to faith for all students.  “For many people, their service is their spirituality,” he said.  “It is their work of faith.  For the Chapel, that means we can bring them in by meeting them where they are.  So it is quite fulfilling when students return as alumni and share how the Chapel has shaped and prepared them for the moments of social and civic engagement that we are witnessing now."

Richardson went on to say, “Many of today’s students don’t have the religious upbringing of past students.  Their first religious experience may be through our social justice work, so we have to make sure we are inclusive of all students and all religious traditions.”  He noted that HBCUs like Howard are more diverse than presumed, with students from many races and religious faiths even within the Black population.

Richardson, a PhD, was awarded a mental health fellowship and had worked as a counselor before coming to Howard.  He wrote his dissertation on behavioral health and religion within the African American community, a relationship that was not always in sync.  Today, he says the community is far more supportive of seeking help for their mental health and credits many in the faith community who have recognized the value of attending to these issues.

Richardson sees religion and psychology as intertwined saying, “Our faith and spirituality are part of who we are as people.”  He believes faith in God helps people to understand their worth in the midst of their struggles – particularly young people.  His biggest worry for them is loneliness.

“Loneliness is a real issue for students,” he said. “Faith plays an important role in that. One of the most important things we can do for students within the chapel is to create community for them – to increase their sense of belonging. Young people today are very intent on being their own person – an identity separate from everyone else.  And yet, at the same time, they discover themselves through their communities.”

Asked if belief in a higher power provides a mental health benefit, Richardson said, “Absolutely.  It is at the core of all I do.”  But the Dean makes an important distinction that not all religious gestures are welcoming or authentic.

“Belief in God is more important than ever, but this country is so separated politically, people are using religion for different purposes.  Young people see that and we’re going to lose them as a result.  They may be able to handle our sins, but they can’t handle our hypocrisy.”

Richardson says the challenge is to listen to students and help them to understand the importance of the spiritual in their lives. “There are many ways to talk to God,” he said.