My experience as a student was filled with fun, transformation, and some struggle. It was during my time as a student involved with Power to Change-Students (P2C) at the University of Ottawa that I gained an understanding of the Great Commission and the role that I could play in helping other students experience this relationship with God that had completely changed me.
I started having conversations with my friends that took our relationships deeper, talking about the things we were wondering and thinking about, and sharing the gospel with them.
But, if I’m honest, those conversations when I was a student rarely went in the direction of personal, internal struggles like mental and emotional health.
Over the eleven years of working on staff with P2C with university/college students, my conversations, relationships, and experiences with students have radically changed.
What was once a weekly conversation with a disciple about how they were experiencing God through prayer, God’s Word, and steps of faith they were taking shifted to conversations centred around crippling anxiety, their struggles with self-harm, and hospital visits in response to suicidal ideation.
Though this isn’t every student I interacted with, it has become concerningly common. Especially now that we’re in a new season of physical distancing, isolation, and uncertainty with the COVID-19 virus.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada recently reported that more than 75% of first-time mental health diagnoses occur between the ages of 16 and 24. That puts them on campus while they are in the throes of becoming aware of a mental health struggle that they may experience, and, if they’re part of P2C, in a relationship with someone like me.
As we’ve watched issues of loneliness and performance expectations increase for a variety of reasons, we’ve seen depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses begin to greatly impact the students on campuses across Canada. Thankfully, our campus leaders have recognized this, and each year are taking more steps to offer students the support they need to get healthy, stay healthy, and succeed in their studies.
This article is a summary of the personal experiences that some P2C staff across Canada have had with the mental health crisis that we know exists on campus, and how they are learning to respond, support, and care for students.
The first response from each staff member I spoke to highlighted the reality that Christian students are in no way exempt from this crisis. Mental health challenges for the Christian student often come with an even greater sense of shame because of the quick and incorrect association made between someone’s mental health and the strength of their faith in God. This added measure of shame makes it increasingly difficult for Christian students to admit their struggle and find the help that they need.
Mental health challenges for the Christian student often come with an even greater sense of shame because of the quick and incorrect association made between someone’s mental health and the strength of their faith in God.
One staff member shared that over 50% of the women in leadership within their ministry have a diagnosis that deeply impacts them daily. Another shared that, of the three men he meets with one-on-one, one is on medication to cope with anxiety, another sees a therapist on campus regularly, and the third also experiences anxiety in different ways. The practical challenge that this causes within a ministry is that, as students struggle, they often need to step back from roles that they have taken on in order to take care of themselves. This can make it difficult to gain momentum, or even keep some of the regular activities going.
In terms of discipleship, staff are responding to this new reality amongst our leaders in a number of ways. The most common way has been to transform their discipleship conversations with students to be more holistic–looking at the whole person instead of just productivity output, or involvement in the ministry.
This means intentionally asking students that they meet with on a weekly basis how they are doing, not only spiritually, but also mentally and emotionally. When offered this opportunity to be open and honest, it has often been the first time students have shared with someone else about their struggle. As you can imagine, this first step is critical to receiving the help they need to get better.
In response to this awareness, staff have needed to become aware of the services available to students, helping them get connected to counselling services offered by the campus, churches in the area, and others. There is a need to better equip our staff to effectively walk alongside students as they wrestle with mental health challenges. Training in mental health first aid allows staff to extend compassion and care, while also knowing their limits and the resources available to those in crisis. This is currently being explored by the National Leadership Team of P2C – Students.
Many campuses have also responded to this awareness by hosting events for their leaders to interact with a Christian counsellor. At these events, professionals give the students a number of different tools to help them cope with their mental health challenges. One campus has had a local counsellor come to campus a day a week to meet with student leaders one-on-one for a discounted rate.
Another very common response has been to reconsider what success looks like as a staff member.
As her disciple struggles with severe anxiety that makes grocery shopping very difficult, one staff member makes time in her schedule to take that student shopping every week. And as another student was hospitalized due to suicidal thoughts, P2C staff on her campus worked with her family and church to create a schedule of people to support her daily for her first weeks out of hospital.
Even though we are not to take on the role of mental health providers, doctors, or emergency responders, working to support the greater emotional and mental health of a student is what discipleship can look like. We need to consider the many different facets of ministry. The National Leadership Team recognizes this and is working to create more avenues to care for Christian student leaders through new partnerships that will help provide on-demand Christian counselling for these leaders.
Even though P2C continues to engage and support their student leaders in mental health experiences, partnership has been key in helping students receive the most support possible.
One campus has partnered with another student club, focussed on helping students form deeper relationships with one another to combat the issue of loneliness. Instead of hosting their own P2C events, they partnered with this club, bringing resources, volunteers, and promotion, with much success! Another campus is focusing on more “common good initiative” events that the campus administration is quick to help promote and resource.
For example, one campus had the campus administration broadly promote their mental health awareness event for free, because its relevance to all students was unquestionable. Events like this offer common ground between Christian and non-Chrstian students, giving those Christian students the opportunity to share about how their faith plays a part in their own emotional and mental health. It has led to the expansion of this campus ministry’s community to include people that otherwise would have never connected with this group.
Again, this profound opportunity to host campus events and seminars that explore a Christian response to anxiety and depression has been recognized by the National Leadership Team, as they steer campus ministries to serve as a conduit for support and care to help students through additional funding.
Andy Smits, the National Director of Power to Change – Students, recently published an article on our blog titled, “Helping students discover the relevance of Jesus for all of life.” In it he writes,
“In recent months, we’ve been seeking to find fresh language to describe the work to which we’re called as Power to Change – Students. We realize that during seasons of change, fresh words have an ability to keep us anchored to our history while also pushing us to dream together about the future.
One of the ways in which we’ve begun describing our work is this: Power to Change forms diverse communities that help students discover the relevance of Jesus for all of life.”
To help students discover the relevancy of Jesus for all of life, we need to be open to what their daily experience is like–including emotional and mental challenges. As we engage with each other through diverse communities, and seek to go deeper, together we hope to discover how Jesus longs to enter into every part of life. It can be difficult, confusing, and messy, but is oh so necessary.