Mental Health: Church needed on or off campus

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Just as Jesus healed people struggling with mental, emotional and physical ailments, United Methodists reach out to their sisters and brothers who seek healing. In this series, United Methodist News Service shares stories of individuals and congregations tackling the challenges of mental health through a variety of ministries.

Getting from age 15 to 24 is a twisting journey, and thousands don't make it.

Depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions, combined with a high rate of suicide, hit this age group hard.

Richard Kadison and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo, authors of "College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It," write that one in two students will become depressed to the point of not being able to function, one in two will have regular episodes of binge drinking and one in 10 will seriously consider suicide.

Mental health issues are medical conditions - like diabetes or any other health situation - that need professional care, said Gary Glass, a director in United Methodist-related Duke University's counseling and psychological services. Symptoms of those conditions often show up at about the same time a young adult is ready to go off to college or start to live independently.

"Depression has become so much a part of the vernacular that when people talk about depression in college students, they might as well use the phrase 'upset.' It has become so broad that it doesn't really capture the experience of the student," he said.

Students facing a mental health crisis are the fastest-growing group on campuses today, said the Rev. Beth Cooper, campus minister of the Wesley Foundation at San Diego (Calif.) State University.

Crushing competition to get into college and stress to maintain high grades, combined with the bleak job market, mean many students don't know how to cope or where to turn for help, she said.

"I always say if The United Methodist Church isn't going to be there, someone else will be."

With more young adults on college campuses than ever before in history, churches have a mission field in their own backyards, she said. First, however, they may need an attitude adjustment or a shift in expectations to understand these young adults.

Cooper, who has a doctorate of ministry, said all the research indicates that young adulthood has been redefined, and most young adults need the decade of their 20s to mature.

The average age of U.S. members of The United Methodist Church is 57, according to a 2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. In their experience, they graduated from high school at 17 or 18, went to college and graduated at 21 or 22. Then they got their first job, probably got married around 24 or 25 and started a family.

"They don't understand why kids are graduating and still don't know what to do or they can't find a job or they are coming back home and living with their parents until they are well into their 30s," Cooper said. "There are a great many congregations who don't know how to reach out to young adults because (the young adult) experience is so foreign to their own."

In addition to being away from home, perhaps for the first time, many young people don't come from a church or religious background. It is important to build relationships, Cooper said.

Surviving the storm

Five things you can do

The Rev. Beth Cooper offers advice for congregations to help those living with mental health issues:

  1. Work through sacred texts that present mental health as culturally taboo. Lift up mental health issues and help people realize that mental health is like any other health issue.
  2. Build communities with your young adults. Even if they are away, stay connected. Send notes, gift cards and greeting cards to remind them of their importance to you and your care for them.
  3. Engage in worship experiences that involve awareness, healing or prayers for those who have mental struggles. Remind one another that we are all a part of the faith community.
  4. Bring in experts in the field and discuss mental health concerns. The more people know, the more helpful they can be.
  5. Assure young people that no matter what, they are loved. All people need an opportunity to be in community.

The Rev. Gary Nelson, pastor of Cross Lanes (Va.) United Methodist Church, almost lost his son to a suicide attempt because of severe depression and anxiety. "He went from being an honor roll student in middle school, liked by everyone, to getting a GED because he was not able to attend school. Today he is 33, happily married and just gave us our first grandchild."

Nelson used his experience as a pastor, pastoral counselor and parent to write "A Relentless Hope: Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression."

He describes suicide and suicide attempts among teens as an epidemic.

"The American Pediatric Association says 20 percent of our youth are suffering from this," Nelson said." He speaks at schools, churches and other organizations to bring education and understanding to the public about what depression and anxiety mean.

"Every time I go someplace, I have kids and adults come up after and say 'thank you' or 'I think you may be talking about me, how can I get help?'"

He explains there is still a lot of mystery around what causes mental illnesses. But one thing he strongly emphasizes: "You don't get it because you don't have enough faith and you don't get it because you haven't prayed hard enough."

What are the signs?

Parents and adult leaders need to monitor young adults to see how they are handling stress, Glass said. Most young people go through periods of depression, irritability, rage and anger. The key is watching how long it lasts and if it disrupts their lives.

"Stress response is the natural physical, psychological response to anything that is threatening," Glass said. "It's the same if a Doberman Pinscher with rabies is chasing you or an exam that you really want to do well on because it has implications on your future. Students don't recognize that fear is guiding a lot of their decisions, so they stay in a constant state of stress that just feels normal to them."

One red flag on a college campus is a student who starts missing lots of classes or stops engaging in social activities he or she once enjoyed.

Most colleges offer some type of counseling, check with the dean of students or another faculty or staff member. United Methodist Wesley Foundations and other campus ministries are another place to go.

"At Duke, we have done a lot to challenge the students on how they define strength so that strength is one's ability to move through difficult times rather than feeling the need to cover up vulnerability," Glass said.

Pray for students

Spirituality and religion provides a sense of grounding, Cooper said.

"If I am worried about competition, having a hard time making ends meet, if I haven't been raised with some type of infrastructure that helps me with coping ... you tend to get lost."

"I always say if The United Methodist Church isn't going to be there, someone else will be."

Cooper said campus ministry is one place to find grounding and a safe place to find "what makes you tick."

"We have incredible young adults on campus. The church needs to be part of their journey."

Sometimes churches don't seem to be aware of the needs of young adults.


"If we could even just get the churches to pray for young people ... every Sunday, if we could just pray that would be a start."

* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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