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It Takes a Campus: Pandemic Expands Mental Health Resources at Christian Colleges

Counselors, students, chaplains, and professors alike are doing their part to help.
It Takes a Campus: Pandemic Expands Mental Health Resources at Christian Colleges
Image: Fat Camera / Getty Images

Before the pandemic, Meghan Becker would meet with five to seven students in crisis a week. As the director of Baylor University’s CARE Team, it’s her job to connect them with the right professionals and resources to address a range of issues, such as suicidal thoughts, depression, stress, drug use, or other troubling behavior.

The number of students coming to her doubled, then tripled by fall 2021.

“I feel like a care and compassion machine,” said Becker, after a week this semester where she saw 19 students in a row.

Her team at the Waco, Texas, campus started taking two work-from-home days a week as a way to help protect their own mental health and workload while bearing the weight of students’ plights during the pandemic.

The dramatic spike in mental health challenges amid the spread of COVID-19 has overwhelmed counselors and chaplains at Christian colleges across the country. But this moment has also led to a deeper understanding of the burdens students carry and more resources on campuses to help.

A growing number of college students were feeling strained prior to March 2020, but once the coronavirus hit—bringing fear, stress, loneliness, and an unknown trajectory for the future—schools saw record-high requests for counseling support. Many added remote options, sometimes even 24/7 availability, to meet students’ needs.

A year and a half into the pandemic, campus staffs are managing the higher demand for counseling requests as more students returned in person this fall.

Baylor’s CARE Team experienced a 110 percent increase in counseling cases over the pandemic. Student counseling appointments were up 73 percent at Biola University in La Mirada, California.

In an informal survey of leaders from 32 schools belonging to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), two-thirds said demand for mental health services increased during the pandemic, while even more (78%) saw signs of student distress such as struggles with classwork, participation, and attendance.

Rates of anxiety and depression among college students have been rising for several years. A 2019 briefing by psychologists from John Brown, Pepperdine, George Fox, Corban, and Taylor universities found “the number of students seeking counseling appointments grew by an average of 30 percent, five times the average rate of enrollment growth.”

The panel described how heightened anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at small Christian colleges has had a noticeable effect campus-wide, not just on individual students but also on the friends, classmates, and professors around them.

“On residential campuses that celebrate the interconnectedness of the ‘community,’” they write, “the impact permeates virtually everything.”

So too did COVID-19 come as an outsized blow to these close-knit Christian campuses, which became separated in their suffering by social distancing and screens.

A survey by the National College Health Association showed students’ mental states have worsened as the pandemic has gone on, with 41 percent of students reporting moderate to serious levels of psychological distress in 2020 and 51 percent in 2021.

The increase in demand for mental health support on Christian campuses has corresponded with recent challenges to long-standing evangelical stigmas around mental health. The past few years have brought talk of depression, anxiety, and self-care to the forefront even more.

“Unfortunately, some churches have a perfectionism that makes this talk kind of threatening,” said Eric Johnson, a professor at the Gideon Institute of Christian Psychology and Counseling at Houston Baptist University. “They want people to always be positive, and trusting Jesus, and I think they unfortunately interpret that as meaning that you don’t have anxiety or depression.”

Johnson noted that he has seen some churches with whom he works becoming more open to the realities of mental health struggles as a result of COVID-19.

Professors at Christian colleges also have had more occasions to respond to students’ mental health concerns as they came up during the pandemic.

Attending class remotely, as some students did in 2020, had its own challenges. Now that they’re back in the classroom, academics can feel more stressful. The class of 2025—who started college this semester—haven’t had a COVID-19-free year of school since 10th grade. That reality has changed how they view education and the kinds of accommodations and interactions they’ve come to expect from their instructors.

“Student expectations will ultimately play a more significant role, and those expectations should inform how the learning elements we redesigned in response to COVID-19 become normalized in our colleges and universities,” one community college president wrote in an Inside Higher Ed piece about long-lasting changes to come out of the pandemic. “We must commit to listening more to our students and to better meeting them where they are.”

Becker at Baylor encouraged professors and staff to “pay attention to the student as a whole person, not just someone who is sitting in their chair” and recognize how they’re feeling.

“Just because they’re not showing up and not turning in their work doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re lazy,” she said. “Most likely it means that they’re depressed.”

The counseling center at Baylor, faced with higher demand, launched an online platform where students can connect with psychiatrists, dieticians, and health care professionals at any time.

Students may also be wary of seeking mental health support on a Christian campus if they fear their condition will be attributed to a lack of faith. Paige Hagy, a junior at The King’s College, had avoided the school’s resources due to earlier experiences with Christian therapists.

“When you go to a biblical counselor, a lot of what they’re going to be asking is, ‘How often do you read your Bible? What are your prayer habits?’” said Paige Hagy, a junior at The King’s College. She had avoided the school’s counseling resources due to earlier experiences with Christian therapists.

“How can we try to administer care to the physical side, and how can we also try to provide spiritual help and to hold both in tension?” asked Jess Weary, a student chaplain coordinator and senior at Wheaton College. “That is something that the church is slowly growing in our ability to do well, imperfectly, but striving to recognize the and instead of the which.”

Of course, spiritual support is important for students in crisis too. In the 2019 report by campus psychologists, alongside concerns about suicide spikes and understaffing, the panel lamented the “lack of faith integration” at Christian colleges and universities.

“There is a lack of Biblical literacy that inhibits some students from being able to recognize the One who reveals Himself as Creator, Redeemer, and Friend,” they wrote. “Tragically, our modern age has virtually no understanding of, or appreciation for, a theology of suffering. The loss of such a metanarrative leads to an existential crisis for many of our students. We must restore a theological vision for hope that recognizes God is in control and actively engaged in our lives, even in the midst of suffering.”

During the pandemic, Wheaton’s chaplain program wanted to make God’s presence known to students who were having a difficult time. The team focused on prayer and availability; during the 2020–2021 school year, they made their way through the residence halls four times, knocking on doors and offering prayer, tea, and cookies to students.

“A lot of students were dealing with the weight of isolation in different ways, whether it be in quarantine specifically or because of the nature of the year, of doing college in the middle of a pandemic,” said Blake Chaput, senior and student chaplain coordinator at Wheaton.

Students often have the best pulse on how they and their classmates are faring. Azusa Pacific University launched a peer educator program for undergrad students to promote mental wellness among their classmates for internship credit, counseling director Lori Lacy told CCCU.

At The King’s College, there was “no shortage” of students who wanted to see a counselor during the pandemic, according to Hagy. Undergrads formed a new organization this fall to discuss issues like anxiety, depression, stress, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders.

Third-year student Neidín Shelnutt, vice president of the new organization, called “The Mend,” said that her experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression motivated her to start the club to shed light on what students like her are going through.

Shelnutt’s mental health suffered ever since she was in a car accident her senior year in high school.

“People couldn’t really understand that [trauma], and it was an awkward thing to bring up,” she said. “But as soon as I was able to verbalize those things, people were so welcoming and kind, and that’s what I want King’s to be.”

Shelnutt and cofounder Aidan Kurth, the group’s president, plan to host monthly sessions, each focusing on a different mental health condition, where the group will present information and resources about the condition and open a discussion for students to share their own experiences with it.

The Mend gathered for the first time November 30, just a couple of weeks before fall semester finals. The session focused on generalized anxiety disorder and drew a handful of students.

“The awareness of mental health challenges has dramatically increased, as has the church’s understanding that we should and can be a safe place to talk about it.” said Kara Powell, chief of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute. “I want families and churches and Christian ministries to be the greenhouses where students can first talk about their problems and get the support that they need.”

Powell said leaders’ transparency about their own mental health struggles makes a difference. Professors and pastors cannot fill in for the professional help or medical care students may need, but they can have a positive effect by empathizing with student concerns and modeling their own willingness to seek help and practice self-care.

Lacy at Azusa Pacific made a similar point in remarks to CCCU’s magazine, referencing mental health training through human resources. “We give faculty language to use, like ‘I feel how hard this is for you. I’ve felt that way before. I’ve found that it’s helpful to go talk to someone about it.’”

Helen Huiskes is a freelance writer and editor in chief of the Wheaton Record.

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