Student Mental Health as a Matter of Mission

By Jessica Coblentz and Chris Staysniak

A growing body of social-scientific research quantifies the mental distress we witness everyday among our students. While the size and scope of the problem is increasingly clear, less so is the responsibility of colleges and universities to attend to student mental health. Often, these struggles are relegated to particular silos of the university, such as counseling centers. Meanwhile, prevailing attitudes among faculty and administrators frequently cast suspicion or even disdain for students in distress. Mental-health struggles are seen as a result of having “coddled” students who need a lesson in grit.

This demarcation of responsibility for student mental health overlooks some of the unique commitments of Catholic Higher Education, which, upon closer reflection, show that student mental health ought not only be the concern of campus psychologists. Here, we consider a few of our distinctive missional commitments to demonstrate that student mental health is matter of mission and thus a concern of the whole campus community.

First, the preamble statement of the 1968 Land O’Lakes gathering identifies “concern with ultimate questions,” especially those of a philosophical and theological nature, as a primary characteristic of Catholic undergraduate education. Accounts of mental-health conditions show them to engender the profound ultimate questions to which Catholic education is committed. In Monica Coleman’s recent memoir, for example, she recounts how depression led her to doubt the image of God that grounded her vibrant Christian faith. If Catholic undergraduate education is to be concerned with the ultimate questions of our students, and in turn, provide theological and philosophical resources for engaging those questions, then we must explicitly engage these mental-health struggles.

Presently, this is a missed opportunity on many Catholic campuses. And more concerningly, when we leave this suffering and its accompanying questions unaddressed, we either abandon students in their existential strife or relinquish their questions to other sources. The latter possibility is not necessarily bad, as news reports and magazine articles can offer rich insights into mental-health conditions and the existential questions they rouse. But these resources are often incomplete, leaving unaddressed the spiritual dimension of life and the resources of religious communities.

Students could also benefit from assistance as they navigate the divergent perspectives and heated debates about the nature of mental-health conditions and how they ought to be treated. Ignoring the ultimate questions born of students’ psychological distress also neglects the charge of Pope John Paul II, who emphasized during his speech to the Association of Catholic Colleges and University in 1987 the responsibility of Catholic educators to help students navigate the pluralism of perspectives they encounter. We cannot succeed in this intellectual task with regard to mental-health issues until we bring them to the fore of Catholic education. 

Photo featured courtesy of    A Health Blog    of the Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo featured courtesy of A Health Blog of the Flickr Creative Commons.

Second, Michael Himes offers a robust theological vision of educating the whole person (cura personalis) when he reminds Christians of their duty to become more fully human and to promote the “humanization” of others. This duty is grounded in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is not only the complete revelation of God but also the perfect revelation of humanity. It follows from the incarnation that, “the more fully human one becomes, the more like God he or she becomes.” From this tradition, Himes defines education as “the formation of the human person in the full and harmonious exercise of all his or her capacities,” which entails “the refusal to allow us to divide our lives into separate and unrelated segments.”

To carry out this “integral humanism” in Catholic higher education, we must accompany students as they learn to flourish as people with persistent mental-health challenges. This means it is not enough to help students lessen the burdens of mental distress, though we should do that; we must also to support them as they integrate the reality of mental-health struggles into their lives. This is especially important because many mental-health conditions are recurrent. Depression, for example, has an especially high rate of recurrence, in that more than 50 percent of sufferers experiencing more than one severe episode in their lifetimes.

Educators must consider how the ideals of their community affect this process. For instance, a campus culture of perfectionism and unwavering student expectations may prevent a student from integrating the difficulties of her mental health into her understanding of herself and the world. It may promote shame around mental-health struggles that lead students to hide and compartmentalize these dimensions of their experience. Alternatively, a campus culture where work-life balance, rest, and self-care are publicly valued and customarily accommodated may help students to recognize and accept their limits.

And more concerningly, when we leave this suffering and its accompanying questions unaddressed, we either abandon students in their existential strife or relinquish their questions to other sources.

Third, our commitment to social justice compels us to engage student mental health. That this is a social justice issue may not be immediately apparent because psychological distress manifests on an individual basis. However, mental-health literature shows that it is indeed a multi-faceted social problem that demands our attention.

Research on mental-health sigma demonstrates that negative social attitudes toward mental-health conditions impose external constraints on sufferers, such as employment and housing discrimination. This stigma spreads on our campuses, where people dismiss depression sufferers as “lazy” or “overly negative” or label anxiety sufferers as “dramatic” and “overly sensitive.” These assumptions communicate that sufferers are culpable for their conditions and deserving of the accompanying social punishments. This stigma also works on sufferers from within, decreasing self-esteem and lowering self-efficacy.

Beyond campus, many of the nation’s most vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by mental-health challenges. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness. A study under the U.S. Department of Justice approximates that 20 percent of people imprisoned in state institutions and 21 percent of people imprisoned in local jails have “a recent history” of a mental-health condition. An astounding 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental-health condition.

On campus and among the marginalized communities to which Catholic universities should be uniquely attendant, mental-health conditions have social ramifications. To abnegate the special responsibility of Catholic schools to promote the care and dignity of those who suffer the unjust social punishments of mental-health conditions is an abandonment of our mission.

Recognizing student mental health as a matter of mission presents Catholic higher education with a challenge: To the extent that mission shapes all that we do, then the whole educational community must promote student mental well-being. This is no small task. However, we believe the missional aspirations of Jesuit and Catholic higher education are worthwhile. Indeed, if we embrace student mental health as a matter of mission and act in turn, Catholic colleges and universities could become prophetic leaders in addressing student mental-health concerns on college campuses today.

Jessica Coblentz is an associate professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Mary's College of California. Chris Staysniak is a visiting assistant professor in history at the College of the Holy Cross. This article grew out of many conversations and cups of coffee when both worked in the Office of Mission and Ministry at Boston College.

The cover picture is featured courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross.