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    Taking Mental Health Seriously at Christian Colleges

    Christian colleges are addressing student mental health issues and challenging the stigma of therapy.

    Jill DePasquale

    Sarah* was in therapy when she was younger. Her parents divorced when she was in sixth grade, and she attended a few counseling sessions around that time. During her senior year of high school, she started going to counseling again to help her deal with the animosity she felt toward her stepdad. Sarah ended these sessions once her counselor felt satisfied with her progress.

    After high school, Sarah attended George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. It was there that she began using a new coping mechanism when emotional issues from her past resurfaced. Whenever she felt stressed or lonely, she started sexting. She never felt too ashamed about it—in fact, she considered it just a fun thing to laugh about with her friends. But her thinking changed when a friend called her out on it. "One day a friend confronted me. Said she thought it was disgusting and I needed help," says Sarah. "She made me feel horrible, so I called the college counseling department and set up an appointment."

    Sarah started attending counseling once a week to discuss the deeper issues that caused her to seek the comfort she found in sexting.

    "I knew some of the issues, but my counselor made me realize some connections that I had missed," says Sarah. "And he helped me understand how God wanted me to live my life."

    The Need for Counseling

    Statistics show that Sarah's story isn't unusual: More and more college students today are seeking counseling. The 2012 National Survey of College Counseling** performed by the International Association of Counseling Services, Inc. (IACS) suggests that approximately 2.2 million college students across the country sought professional counseling during the past year. And 88 percent of college counseling center directors reported that a greater number of students with severe psychological problems continues to be a trend on their campuses, while 87 percent believe there has been a steady increase in the number of students who are already on psychiatric medications. Cindy Kok, director of the Broene Counseling Center at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says these survey results line up with her experience. More and more students are entering college with an existing mental health diagnosis such as anxiety, ADHD, or depression; and many major mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia, often appear during the late teens and early 20s.

    But as a result of the stresses that come with making the transition from high school to college, the need for counseling also extends to those students who've never dealt with a serious mental illness. College freshmen especially may have a difficult time adjusting. "The increasing amount of independence that college offers is a source of stress," says Kok. "This can come from tasks such as managing your own schedule, sleep, leisure activities, study time, and social time."

    In addition, many students experience grief and loss for the first time while they're away at school. The death of a family member, a relationship breakup, or a parental divorce can lead them to question God's faithfulness and presence, adding an additional burden to an already turbulent time. Rae Staton, campus counselor at Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio, says managing newfound freedom is a stress that comes with identity development during college. "They've come from their parents' home where they likely had curfews and much closer monitoring. Now students are completely free to come and go as they please," she says. "For the first time, students get to decide who they are and what rules they want to abide by. This transfers to their faith as well. In their first-year religion classes or in conversations with others, they'll often hear ideas they didn't hear in their home churches, which will challenge their belief systems."

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