ST. PAUL, Minnesota • As student anxiety soars, campus ministries are trying to help not only by providing the comforts of faith and community, but also by creating collaborations with mental health professionals .
On Ivy League campuses, major public institutions and faith-based colleges, chaplains and psychologists team up, informed by extensive research showing that religion and spirituality can alleviate mental distress by providing group support and building personal resilience.
“We’re good partners and refer to each other regularly,” said Calvin Chin, director of Princeton University’s counseling and psychology services, which a third of students use. “We really think holistically about how to support a student, what they need to lead a successful and satisfying life.”
On a spring Saturday afternoon close to finals week, Sadaf Shier, the Muslim chaplain at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, oversaw an end-of-Ramadan celebration where students of all faiths, or none, did anti-stress activities. such as flower pot painting and henna hand decoration.
Shier and the university’s Protestant pastor, Neil Ellingson, mingled with dozens of students on the lawn outside the Catholic chapel.
“My primary commitment is to provide an atmosphere where students feel their religious identity is legitimate,” Shier said. “It directly supports mental health.”
Ellingson also saw a direct link between faith and sanity: belief in a higher being leads students to feel that “you are loved by the cosmos and matter in that larger sense.”
But he added that the challenge is to expand the reach of the ministry.
“Students who tend to walk through the door are already plugged in. How do you connect with those who aren’t?” he said. “When students need these things the most, they aren’t looking for them.”
The need is indeed critical. In December, halfway through the freshman year when most colleges returned to in-person instruction, the US Surgeon General issued an advisory on the nation’s youth mental health crisis. He revealed that everything from sadness to plans for suicide had increased by more than 40% in the decade before COVID-19 – and that the additional impact of the pandemic was “devastating”.
Counselors see distress becoming more widespread and severe — particularly anxiety, which has overtaken stress and depression among students, according to the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors.
“Our faculty say…students seem a lot more overwhelmed, they’re a lot more anxious,” especially when it comes to managing demands and social interactions, said Cindy Bruns, board director and licensed psychologist. at Central Washington University.
By fostering supportive community events where students can relearn how to socialize in real life and not always-organized social media—a skill often lost in pandemic isolation—campus ministries can make a big impact.
At Yale University, Omer Bajwa, an imam and director of Muslim life, has seen a dramatic increase in attendance for Friday prayers and Ramadan events compared to the pre-pandemic period. Although he said the Class of 2025 has nearly double the usual number of self-identifying Muslim students, he believes attendance is also driven by the suitability of chaplains.
“We are trained to be good listeners, to ask thoughtful questions, to engage with people where they are,” Bajwa said.
Across the country, at the University of Southern California, which has 50,000 students enrolled, a record number of people showed up at spirituality and wellness events – at Shabbat dinners, Buddhist meditations , Catholic masses and pet therapy sessions.
“We brought in 250 children to pet two therapy dogs. Normally we have 20 children,” said Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life. “They were so desperate to be together in a sense-making context, that religious and spiritual life suddenly exploded in the fall.”
Even before the pandemic, despair seemed to mark Generation Z, whose members were born roughly between 1997 and 2012.
“Students no longer asked me, ‘How should I live?’ They started asking me, ‘Why should I live?'” Soni said.
Chaplains and counselors have been teaming up for years, he said, but even though USC has bolstered its wellness team by adding 60 new counselors since 2008, wait times for appointments stay about three weeks.
Yet chaplains and psychologists are quick to point out that one cannot replace the other, especially since demand is so high. By serving as long-term mentors to students, chaplains can release guidance for dealing with critical care such as panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska in Omaha offers game nights and dances and also pays for weekly student counseling sessions at its residence hall, which is also open to non-Catholics.
“We’re not just a hub of activity, we want to be a place where people can ask the big questions,” said director Reverend Dan Andrews. “Not having answers is a root cause of the anxiety they feel.”
David deBoer, director of counseling at the Loyola Wellness Center, sees in this insight the special role of ministry on campus.
“Campus ministry can engage students on a more existential level, addressing deeper issues where the language of mental health has limitations,” he says. For example, a chaplain can help reconcile the dissonance that traditionally educated Muslim or Catholic students might feel if they develop a sexual orientation or gender identity not welcomed by their faith, he added.
Many experts argue that therapy should assess students’ engagement with spirituality as an overall part of their identity. This would help uncover potential coping mechanisms, said David Hodge, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work.
It also avoids misdiagnosing them — a Catholic student who just received the Sacrament of Reconciliation might say “I’m fine with death” but not be suicidal, said Charis Davidson, a professor and public health researcher at Mercy College.
His studies found that campus ministry-board collaborations are still “definitely the exception” at public universities, but the current crisis could bring them closer together.
It is also crucial to broaden the reach to students who are reluctant to approach religious leaders. Vanessa Gomez Brake, a lay humanist and associate dean of religious and spiritual life at USC, said expanding spiritual wellness offerings for religious and non-religious students should become a priority for campus ministry.
This year, for example, she partnered with the 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 maintain as many community programs as possible even during the darkest times of the pandemic, its director, the Reverend Eric Nielsen, said.
“I brought in an atheist who just wanted to hang out,” he recalled, adding that the student said it helped him feel a little less depressed.
During the recent Eid celebration at the University of St. Thomas, three students worked the table offering sequins, decals and ribbons to decorate mason jars and hijabs. Salma Nadir, a senior graduate and secretary of the Muslim Student Association, said Shier, the chaplain, “has saved us so many times” with events like this fostering a welcoming community.
“It’s been good for my stress, being able to talk to new people,” admitted freshman Arianna Norals.