Spirituality and Mental Health

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with Dave Enters, LCSW, director of the Concordia Counseling Center, and Rev. Steve Smith, CUW campus pastor, to discuss how a firm spiritual foundation can help in maintaining good mental health.

Studies consistently show that a growing percentage of college students are dealing with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. What do you think are some of the reasons behind this trend?

Steve Smith: Dave will know more than I do, I’ll offer just a couple thoughts. For one thing, I think the pandemic has heightened things. So especially in the last year-and-a-half, anxiety and all kinds of attendant issues, such as depression, have been worse. But I think for students, social media is also a big part of it. The idea of comparisons, and what they post, what they put out there, what they see of others, what they feel are expectations, whether real or imagined … I think that creates a lot of anxiety.

Dave Enters: I’ve noticed changes in the generations. That is, Generation Y, Millennials, Generation Z …  there does seem to be an effect with students who had “helicopter parents.” These are parents who love their kids, and want to do what’s best for them, but probably took the lead on helping their child be successful, more often than letting the child learn from mistakes and develop some abilities and skills, coping and other things.

And then with the newer generation, I’ve heard the term “snowplow parents,” described to me as parents who push all the obstacles out of the way so it can be an easy path to move forward. I get the reasoning and the motive—it’s all out of love—but I sometimes see students who aren’t as prepared to handle challenges, especially new challenges they’re faced with when they come to college for the first time.

At the same time, surveys also show a decline in spirituality, in Christianity, among young people. Do you see a lack of, or less of, a spiritual life being a factor as well?

Enters: It obviously plays a role. I’m not quite sure how to make sense of it, but I have noticed some students who identify as Christians, and that their faith is important to them, sometimes they say that more easily than they can back it up. It’s like an identity they want to have, but they haven’t worked at getting there yet. That’s my observation, among the small subsection of students that I see, the ones who reach out for help.

Smith: I’d agree with Dave that often it’s “Yes, I believe in God, but how does that really affect my daily life?” I don’t think there’s a lot of connection for a lot of students. Now, some come with a strong background, and they connect the dots well. So, when you point out that they could be dealing with a spiritual issue, they’re like “Yes, thank you, that’s a good perspective.” But for some, it is new. They know that God loves us, but they haven’t thought in very concrete terms about how that can affect their lives.

Dave, more than anyone I think I’ve known—and I include pastors in this—is masterful at pulling relevant scripture into counseling. But that works best when people already know some scripture and can say, “Oh yeah, that is a good story, and I can see how it applies here.”

Do students usually seek out a pastor first or go to the Counseling Center first?

Smith: I would guess most go to the counseling center first. Once in a while a student will email me and say, “I’m in need of pastoral counseling.” But I think that usually happens when someone already has a good relationship with a pastor, so talking with a pastor is a natural thing, and they also want to have that here. But I don’t think students will usually say, “This is a spiritual issue, and that’s where the answer’s going to be,” even though in the end they may find that out.

So it’s not necessarily the case where “this is a spiritual issue” vs. “this is a mental health issue” …

Smith: Right. There have been times where Dave and I, or Ann [Spahr] and I, are seeing a student concurrently. They have the expertise to really dig into the issues from a clinical standpoint, and sometimes I’ll put a spiritual piece alongside. But then, since Dave’s perspective is so highly scriptural and biblical, he’s the whole package in himself!

Enters: Well, thank you! Obviously, there is value in the clinical perspective. But it raises the question, “Does depending on God mean you don’t or shouldn’t need help from a mental health professional?” You know, God created us, He knows us, He provides for us, and … our needs are certainly met and fulfilled through Him. That said, I think one without the other is probably a miss. We certainly need both.

What would the process be if I’m a student or an employee who’s maybe feeling some anxiety or depression?

Smith: For someone who says, “I feel like I need to talk to someone,” or, “I’m not able to handle this on my own,” I think the Counseling Center is probably the best place to start. If you already realize you need help, then that’s going to be a quicker way to get started figuring things out.

Enters: Yes, I think that’s fair. And that’s probably the reason we get so many students reaching out to the Counseling Center, because they recognize us as the primary option. But if they have an established relationship, and feel more comfortable coming to a pastor first, that’s great. And if it turns out to be something more clinical in nature, I know you would encourage the student to come our way. I know we’ve directed students your way, as well.

Smith: It’s really a network. Especially if you include many professors, faculty, staff, and coaches. That’s where I think a lot of people start. That’s part of the blessing of our campus.

Enters: It really is, and that’s such a good point to make. We’re a very caring campus.

What role does a healthy spiritual life play in maintaining good mental health? And what are a few habits that are good for maintaining a healthy relationship with God?

Smith: I think this idea of the mind, body, and spirit, the idea of being well, or being whole, is very interesting. A lot of times Jesus would perform a miracle and then say, “Your faith has made you well,” or “made you whole.” Is this the physical? Yes! I couldn’t walk, but now I can. But it’s also the spiritual: Sins are forgiven, emotional healing, they’re all tied together. It’s not either-or. They complement each other, so that’s the approach we try to take.

Enters: I find great joy in looking for opportunities to introduce people to Jesus on a personal level. Maybe they don’t realize that they’ve been keeping that door closed, and not allowing Him in. Maybe our conversation will open that door, so now He can come in, and the Word obviously is part of that.

For instance, there’s a passage I share when I want to normalize someone’s struggle and make them feel like they’re not alone in it. I turn to 2 Corinthians 1, verses 3-5, where Paul writes:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” [emphasis added]

So, I enjoy framing God—God the Father, Son, and Spirit—as personal, desiring to join us in our sufferings. And that God is eager to do that.

Smith: When I talk with students, and they’re trying to figure things out, oftentimes I’ll talk about what their background has been, faith-wise. And a lot of times there’s been some pattern of, “Yeah, I grew up within the church,” or “I was confirmed.” But now that they’re on their own, they’ve strayed from a lot of habits they used to have. Maybe, “Yeah, I haven’t really been to church on Sunday for, like, this whole semester.” And I often tell them, if you connect with some of the habits that used to be helpful for you, like going to chapel or Sunday worship, that’s probably a good thing.

And I always caution that if your spiritual fulfillment is all on your own, and you make it a very personal, private thing, there’s a potential danger in withdrawing from the community. So I try to suggest things that pull them into community. What’s a way that connects for you? We have tons of opportunities here, so hopefully they’ll find something.

RELATED: 5 Unique ways Concordia is supporting students’ emotional wellbeing

When you’re working with someone who maybe doesn’t know where they stand with God, or is questioning, or is even an atheist … how does that affect the counseling approach?

Smith: There’s a whole range of students—some strong Christians, some are Muslim, or Hindu, or wouldn’t identify as anything. If the question is, “If a student is not Christian, can they still get counseling?” the answer is, “absolutely!”

Enters: I have certainly counseled individuals who say they’re unbelievers, or of a different faith, and it just causes me to have to think carefully about how to best serve this person. But, over the years, I have found ways to bring God’s Word into the moment, even with a non-believer. Like, “I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but there’s a Christian principle or a Christian approach that many people have found useful—do you mind if I share it with you?”

Are there particular Bible verses you offer to people when they’re struggling?

Enters: Here’s a recent example. A beloved teacher at a local school had passed away, and one of the young students asked his mother, “Mom, is it okay to cry?” Do you know what it reminds me of? When Lazarus died, and Mary and Martha and others were grieving, before they knew that Jesus was about to raise him from the dead. Jesus felt compassion, and wept with them. [John 11:35] So He validates our struggles. He validates our grief. He validates the need to release and be sad. He validates his humanness, and ours.

Smith: Sometimes, in context of connecting with a specific person, I’ll ask if there’s a verse in their past that they know. And sometimes they’ll think of their confirmation verse, or some other verse that they’ve known. Maybe it’s a verse that a parent or grandparent has shared with them. But, sometimes a student will say, “I need a verse, but I don’t know any verses!” I honestly believe that in that context, God will often have a verse come to mind that we can share with them, and sometimes that’s super helpful.

We’ve covered a lot of ground! Do you have any closing thoughts?

Enters: Well, this is such an incredible place to work, because God’s Word is welcomed. And it’s hard for me to imagine doing my job if I couldn’t bring God’s Word into it. So it’s just such a joy, and a blessing, to not only have the opportunity to do that, but to be supported and encouraged to do that, as well. It’s a real privilege.

Smith: Sometimes you can get so into thinking that the weight of the world, spiritually, is all on yourself, it becomes overwhelming. But you’re there with Paul, who had moments of despair, and Martin Luther, who struggled with depression. Just remember that we’re blessed with one of the best spiritual communities you could find anywhere—so take advantage of it!

For the latest information on the CUW Counseling Center or spiritual life on campus, visit cuw.edu.

— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at michael.zimmerman@cuw.edu or 262-243-4380.

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