According to statistics published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH; 2018), college students are at an increased risk of developing or presenting mental health symptoms.
The top mental health concern among college students, as reported in a 2012 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is depression. Bipolar disorder, a related mood disorder, is a close second.
According to more recent data reported by the American Council on Education (ACE; 2018), three out of five college students report experiencing a significant level of anxiety, and two out of five college students report a debilitating level of depression.
Despite the magnitude of these mental health concerns, ACE (2018) notes that only approximately 10–15% of students with these concerns report seeking any type of counseling services. With such a great need for mental health service, Christian higher education must be prepared to provide assistance to students.
For the Christian institutions that are currently unprepared to offer such services, this article will provide several suggestions to assist them in meeting the mental health needs of their students.
While the recognition and treatment of mental health concerns is more widely accepted then even 10 years ago, some residual misunderstandings might still exist, especially regarding how smaller colleges or universities can provide practical solutions to these needs. Further, with limited resources, some institutions might struggle to envision how mental health services and resources can be provided on their campuses.
These are realistic concerns, but responding to the mental health needs of their students can still remain a priority, even with limited resources in finances, space, and personnel.
1. Demonstrate Acceptance
The two greatest commandments for Christians are fairly simple: love God and love others (Mark 12:38–31). Loving others means caring for others and respecting their inherent personhood as having been created in the image of God.
A simple way to increase campus support for mental health concerns is to establish a campus culture of acceptance. Just as the apostle Paul noted that a body consists of multiple parts (1 Corinthians 12:12–27), we must also recognize that each person is different but still a part of a unified body of believers. We can demonstrate acceptance of and learn from the unique differences of others, and, at the same time, remain united as Christians.
Developing an environment of acceptance on a college campus is not an easy feat, but with Christ’s command to love others, this is something Christian institutions can excel at. Acceptance of people with mental health concerns is akin to accepting interpersonal differences related to age, health, gender, and ability, as well as differing interests, preferences, and so on.
Demonstrating acceptance is not about ignoring mental illness; instead, it is about caring for others regardless of their strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and disadvantages. Acceptance allows a person to not be afraid to reveal their differences, nor be afraid to seek services to address them.
2. Reduce Stigma
Even with an increasing availability of resources for mental illness, counseling services remain under-utilized; one reason may be the perceived stigma of receiving mental health services.
Mental health concerns have been misunderstood for centuries, and distasteful references to mental illness can be found far back into ancient history (Farreras, 2019); this still continues today. While medical research and technology have increased our knowledge of mental illness, how it affects the human brain and body, and effective ways to treat it, misconceptions and stigma still remain and could influence how those diagnosed with mental illness are treated by others.
Further, fearing negative or demeaning responses from others might prevent those with legitimate mental health needs from seeking needed services.
Reducing stigmas surrounding mental health concerns can be addressed in a variety of ways — the most effective method coming through increased education. Providing training opportunities and resources for faculty, staff, administrators, and students to become more familiar with mental illness, including identifying common symptoms, and available referral resources can increase awareness and dispel misconceptions about mental health concerns.
Training materials, pamphlets, flyers, posters, and wallet cards are often freely available through national and governmental organizations, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
These resources can be easily distributed within the campus community, especially among other materials related to health and wellness, to reduce stigma and normalize the necessity of such services. Thus, even smaller institutions with limited financial resources can provide valuable information and resources to the entire campus community.
3. Make Connections
For smaller Christian institutions that might not be able to provide an on-campus mental health clinic, it is imperative to make connections within the local community. Because many students seek out Christian higher education opportunities with a desire to integrate faith and education, Christian institutions should connect with local professionals that share similar beliefs and are willing to integrate Christian faith into the mental health services they provide — in this manner, Christian institutions are able to attend to a student’s continued spiritual growth and development. With this information, when students ask about mental health services, appropriate referrals are readily available.
As previously noted, some stigma still surrounds mental health concerns, so referral information can be listed with other health and wellness information that is made available to students, such as in a Student Life office or among other online contact information for health services.
Creating a mental health referral list might present a dilemma because many higher education administrators are not appropriately trained or qualified to vet local professionals, or they simply might not have the time to do so. Therefore, connecting with other Christian institutions with counseling programs could be a helpful place to start. Nearby churches might also provide useful referral information. And a quick online search can provide a list of possible Christian counseling resources.
Because some community mental health agencies and professionals might not integrate faith and counseling, or they might not be trained to do so, it is important for Christian institutions to make connections in order to provide helpful, spiritually-friendly referrals.
Smaller Christian higher education institutions often face significant challenges in attending to all student needs. From a financial standpoint, it might seem almost impossible to provide appropriate services in all areas. However, some free and low-cost options do exist for those institutions who are willing to seek out available resources and make connections within their local communities, especially for mental health services. With the proper application of freely-available resources, Christian institutions can increase awareness of mental health concerns, provide information to improve knowledge, and make connections in the local community to augment the information and resources available on campus.
American Council on Education. (2018, December 17). The rise of mental health on college campuses: Protecting the emotional health of our nation’s college students [Higher Education Today blog]. Retrieved from: https://www.higheredtoday.org/2018/12/17/rise-mental-health-college-campuses-protecting-emotional-health-nations-college-students/
Farreras, I. G. (2019). History of mental illness. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds.), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF Publishers. doi:nobaproject.com
Lauriello, S. (2019, January 25). The real reason record numbers of college students are seeking mental health treatment. Health. Retrieved from: https://www.health.com/condition/depression/anxiety-depression-college-university-students
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). Managing a mental health condition in college. Retrieved from: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Teens-Young-Adults/Managing-a-Mental-Health-Condition-in-College
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2012). College students speak: A survey report on mental health. Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved from: https://www.nami.org/getattachment/About-NAMI/Publications-Reports/Survey-Reports/College-Students-Speak_A-Survey-Report-on-Mental-Health-NAMI-2012.pdf
National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml