Students and mental health issues: a church response

By Beth Cooper, Special Contributor…

Answers to questions raised by the tragic shootings this summer in Aurora, Colo., by a student dropout, need to look well beyond condemnation of senseless incidents of random violence, the need for gun control and explanations of why bad things happen to good people.

There is a connection between several horrible shootings that have occurred. Young adults have committed mass shootings in Arizona, at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and other settings. Each involved a shooter who was a mentally ill college student or recent dropout.

Beth Cooper

In this global culture, young adults are in trouble. Taking action and making changes are appropriate responses. As an 18-year-veteran of campus ministry, I implore faith communities to see the bigger picture of what is happening to our young adults and what we can do to make a difference.

Gigantic changes are sweeping across our university campuses with students who are experiencing losses, pressures and mental illness in epidemic proportions. Here are some of the developments:

Cuts to campus services because of economic downturn. With larger classes it is hard for teachers to know students personally. Counseling and other helping services have been cut. Counselors are having to handle many more cases. A student needing immediate help may not get it. Typically when students show signs of trouble, they fall below radar and people are too busy to help. People who need services and don’t have the means need advocates and bridges for their recovery.

Students are experiencing more episodes and symptoms of mental illness. The mentally distressed student is the fastest growing demographic group on campus. One in four students experience depression to the point of not being able to get out of bed. Students need more mental health awareness. Parents and responsible adults need to have more face-to-face time with students.

Competition is greater. Students are under increasing pressure to perform. There is more competition for admission to programs. With human knowledge exploding exponentially, cultural changes mean that from the time students enter elementary school, they experience stress and pressure to learn and perform. More people are going to university and college than ever before. Without support to help a student put competition in perspective, anxiety increases and inhibits healthy choices.

College students are suffering in the bad economy. Many students are having a hard time paying increasing university costs, including rising tuition. Some face a choice between paying for school and paying for food and a place to live. Those who are the first in their family to be in college may have to cope by themselves if there is no family member or friend who understands the pressures and changes they face.

Concern for liability gets in the way of helping students who drastically need immediate help. Students who show signs of mental illness may exhibit bizarre behavior. A responsible student may begin staying up at night, not study, or may not pay his or her housing bill. The college acts to protect its financial interests. The school may drop the student from classes or from a program and let her or him go. The student is considered an adult, and the school gives out no information, even to parents, because of privacy laws. Parents or family members may not know what has happened or that anything has changed. Many times students undergoing these changes don’t have the resources or the mental capabilities to call home or find help.

Social factors can break down student development. Alcohol and drug use is epidemic on university campuses. Students are pressured to binge drink and to take drugs that can lead to psychotic breaks. Sexual experience, sexual abuse and rape are prevalent. These issues have side effects that can interfere with maturation and development. Student services and education about these issues outside the classroom need to be provided even in a budget-slashing economy.

Many students feel alone. Isolation is a huge detrimental issue for young adults, even if they are surrounded by young adults, and technology may be a contributing factor. Enormous numbers of students are communicating with each other via Internet but not through ordinary social interaction. Warning signs of distress are missed. More and more students are not taking time for in-depth personal relationships and checking in with those who care.

Effective outreach

This is an opportunity for faith communities to wake up and learn about young adults! Faith communities can step up to help. When we understand the needs of young adults, it makes sense to expand the vital mission outreach to college students and others of their age.

A makeshift memorial across the street from the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where a gunman killed 12 people and injured 58 others during a midnight screening on July 20. The suspect, James Holmes, was arrested at the scene. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Do we really understand young adults? Do we understand the sources of their pain and anger? Most young adults need the decade of their 20s to mature. Half of all college students are not able to find employment in their field when they graduate. If they do, they are likely to have seven different jobs over their career and not be covered by job-related health insurance or pension benefits. Our young people are having a hard time finding ways of coping. Coping helps with anxiety, stress, relationship building and happiness. When one is at a loss to be able to cope, all other things seem dismal.

Young adults may be sexually experienced but impoverished when it comes to dealing with conflict or building relationships based on common value systems. Young adults today know little about cooking and good nutrition. Due to obesity and stress, most will not live as long as their parents. Young adults may tend to associate religion with attending boring church services, but many are hungry for spiritual development and eager for opportunities to participate in community service. They may not be asking questions about religious dogmas or rituals and what it means to orient their life in relationship to God, but many are asking about the meaning of war, how to put together part time jobs to make meaningful work, and how to pay off their debts.

How can we best help young adults?

Prayers in worship can be oriented to address the concerns, pains, fears, sorrows and needs of young people who are inundated with experiences of loss. Young adult life milestones can be celebrated. Young adult leaders can be welcomed even when they initiate changes.

Congregations with few financial resources can learn how to use inexpensive forms of digital communication. They can build relationships by doing things together with young adults and by enabling young adults to meet other like-minded young adults.

It is essential for members of faith communities to build relationships with young people. This will involve moving beyond ordinary cultural habits and economic comfort zones to be present in new ways in new places. Young adults may be more comfortable in a coffee shop than a sanctuary. They may be speaking different languages and living or working with people who are strangers to a congregation. Pressure, shame and judgment put up barriers to mentoring and relationships. For young adults, relationships are important. God works through relationships.

Faith communities have an opportunity to build relational communities where young people can feel that they belong and where they can participate in rituals that shape, guide, and provide routine and discipline for one’s life. It is routine that helps a young adult know where to go when something traumatic happens.

Faith communities can aid and support young adults who are questioning their identity. Who am I? Why am I here? What good can I do for the community and the world?

Here are five specific things that faith communities can do in congregational life for young people experiencing mental health issues:

1. Work through sacred texts that present mental health issues as culturally taboo. Lift up mental health issues and help them realize that mental health is like any other health issue.

2. Build communities with your young adults. Even if they are away, stay connected. Drop notes, gift cards and 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 that have mental health struggles. Remind each other that we all are a part of the faith community.

4. Bring experts in the field and have discussions about mental health concerns. The more people know, the more helpful they can be.

5. Young people need to know that no matter what they are loved. All people need to be given an opportunity to be in community.

Dr. Cooper is an ordained UM elder and executive director and campus minister of the Wesley Foundation serving San Diego State University. She is author of “Trauma on Campus,” published in To Transform the World: Vital United Methodist Campus Ministries (General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2009).

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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