Feeling depressed? Maybe a little anxious? Well, it’s that time of year, after all. Vice President of Student Development Shawn Holtgren opened up chapel on Monday by announcing a new chapel series, which he called "Wellness Week." The series focused on three major psychological issues that college students face, some on a daily basis: grief, depression and anxiety. Holtgren said that in his talks with the Wellness Center, they mentioned that October and February are big months for students who struggle with depression and anxiety. “My point with the series is, I was really thinking, praying and kind of reflecting on what do we want to accomplish in a series like this," said Holtgren. "It’s to give students hope."
Those involved in planning the series hope that students who are struggling with these issues who attend these chapels will know that they’re not alone and that there are resources on campus to help them.Holtgren said that he’s been planning this series since last May, when he has his usual meeting with the Wellness Center. According to Holtgren, the series stemmed from a desire to be more proactive in dealing with the issues of grief, depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts that students face, rather than being simply reactive. Statistics from the Bethel College Wellness Center do point to a real problem on campus: already this year the Wellness center has provided 76 hours of service to 23 students in the first five weeks of the semester. Last year, that number was 75, and the year before was 50. More Wellness Center statistics indicated that 30 students said they would have been unable to continue enrollment without therapy, and 25 indicated that they would have definitely dropped out of school without therapy. But on a practical aspect, what is this series doing for students? How prevalent are these issues? What’s Bethel doing now to help students, and what changes could be made to make things better? The Bethel Beacon talked with assistant professor of youth ministry Dr. Robert Brandt, professor of psychology Dr. Stephanie Carlson, adjunct Wellness Center clinician James Hurst and associate professor of religion John Dendiu about the prevalence of grief, depression and anxiety on Bethel’s campus. How common are these problems? “More and more cases and situations are arising across the nation,” said Carlson, citing an increase in prevalence of these issues in the overall population. “We have an obligation to help deal with those issues,” she said. Brandt said he sees evidence of these issues affecting his students. “Every semester and class is affected to some degree,” said Brandt. “(There are) situational tendencies…that are recurring.” “I don’t really have a great estimate in terms of Bethel students as a whole because a lot of students who might have grief, anxiety and depression don’t come over here,” said Hurst. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because there are a lot of other resources here on campus.” Hurst mentioned RAs as a possible place students go to for help. When it comes to grief, Brandt said that it’s unfortunately quite common, and that people deal with it in different ways. Some students bring their grief with them on campus after the summer. Hurst explained the issue of grief and how it differs from the other issues addressed in "Wellness Week." “(Grief is) different from anxiety/depression in that, at moderate to severe levels, both anxiety and depression are mental health issues. Grief usually is not,” said Hurst. “It can become that if it festers and worsens and escalates. And that’s a difficult thing sometimes for people to realize because grief can be so profound.” Dendiu echoed the message by Wednesday's chapel speaker, Suze Fair, who also spoke about the issue of grief. “We have to think about grief in much broader terms than just the death of somebody,” said Dendiu. “We are losing things all the time.” Dendiu cited Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.” According to Dendiu, in an ecclesiastical perspective on life, we’re constantly losing things, since that’s what life is. Stress and anxiety is something familiar to us all, and Brandt acknowledged that test times will boost stress, and freshmen especially will have doses of stress when entering school. “Anxiety is probably (the) number one area, and that also reflects national statistics among college students,” said Hurst. Hurst mentioned that anxiety has many different forms and levels of anxiety, ranging from just normal stress levels to full-blown severe anxiety disorders, or generalized anxiety disorders (G.A.D.’s) that can be very debilitating. Then there’s the big one: depression. Brandt mentioned that depression isn’t something necessarily seen, but it’s expressed in certain demeanors of students who are struggling. “Sometimes kids will be too depressed to do anything,” he said. “Sometimes you’re tempted to ask the question ‘are they just a bad student or what?’ or ‘what’s going on with them?’” Hurst said that “depression comes oftentimes second to anxiety nationally, and with us in terms of students who come here, anxiety and depression can appear together and often do, but they’re different.” Hurst said that the distinguishing hallmark of depression is simply a loss of enjoyment in life or anything at all. The old term for the condition was anhedonia, coming from the Greek “hedone,” meaning “pleasure”, and the prefix “an,” meaning “without.” Anhedonia literally means the inability to feel pleasure. “That’s different from anxiety because people who just have anxiety without much depression, they’re stressed, they’re tense, they’re worried, they might have some sleep difficulty and other types of symptoms, but they’re able to enjoy things too,” Hurst concluded.
What are the causes of these issues?Causes for these disorders are as varied as their symptoms. Everyone has a different experience with grief, anxiety or depression, as it really depends on many different lifestyle factors. Brandt mentioned specifically stress, relationships, heartbreak, tests, work, abuse and other forms of hurt as potential causes. Hurst also stated that the two major causes for these issues are academic concerns, such as constant evaluation and tests, and relationships, since there are so many social transactions happening. Dendiu added that another cause was simply a lack of rest and rhythm in life. “Probably the increasing speed and stress of life,” said Dendiu, “Decreasing attention to living with some balance and purpose. Perhaps support systems kind of get broken down a bit; people don’t live near families as much as they used to.” Dendiu went on to say that, again, the constant evaluation, suggestions and criticisms can affect students as well. “Life is never without accountability,” he said, “so it’s, are you willing to handle accountability?” Carlson got even more specific: “Some people are caught up in the idea that the only reason we have disorders in our society is due to spiritual issues,” she said, making the point that these issues can have biological factors or even genetic factors contributing to them. She later said that the reason we have disorders in the first place does stem back to the fall of man, but that doesn’t mean we have to treat the brain differently. “I’m not dismissing that God has any hand in the matter, but I also believe in the physical and psychological sides of the situation as well,” she said. Holtgren said he believes there were many reasons students struggle most with these issues during the months of October and February. “You’ve passed fall break, so now you’re in a long stretch without a break,” he began. “So you have fall break which was early, Thanksgiving which is late … You have the changing of the season, so the weather’s changing, it’s getting colder, it’s getting darker. The semester’s kicked in. So you’ve had midterms now, students are realizing, oh, this really is demanding, and I’m struggling to keep my head above water. And then I think, you’re late in the semester, you’re realizing how much is still due, what’s to come.” So we know it’s a problem. That’s obvious.
How is Bethel helping students from an out-of-chapel standpoint? And what can students do?“We talk a lot in our Student Life staff and our Commuter Life staff about (how) this is the time to be on an alert, helping students,” said Holtgren. “So I do think we have people on the front lines, we call them ‘in the trenches,’ with students who are aware of these issues right now plaguing students.” Hurst agreed. “One thing Bethel does really well is there are a lot of caring inpiduals on campus,” he said. “Sometimes in larger schools… students can get lost… Bethel does a good job of having staff… who are there to help students and help them through tough times.” Holtgren also mentioned that he and Director of Student Life Julie Beam meet with faculty at events like faculty retreat and let them know what signs to look for in students who may be struggling. He said that they’ve already received three or four calls from faculty members who were concerned about some of their students. From a faculty viewpoint, Brandt said that there’s no way to know exactly what’s going on inside a students unless you take the time to build relationships with them. He keeps a sticky note on his computer that reads “What don’t I know about my students?” “It reminds me that I don’t always know the whole story, and I have to put forth the commitment and approach to my students,” he said. Dealing specifically with grief, Hurst said that, “Many times when people are grieving, what I tell them is, be around other people. Don’t feel like you need to talk to those people. You know, watch videos together, or eat together with people but don’t feel like you need to pressure yourself to somehow talk about what you’re feeling. And that can be healing over time.” Carlson said, "This is not a laughing matter and we should never put ourselves in a place of making fun of different disorders. You never know what people are going to be carrying with them in life.” Dendiu even said that if a student is reluctant to go get help by themselves, then faculty and staff are encouraged to go with them to offer support. Holtgren also mentioned that he’s been urging the Wellness Center, along with his own staff, to make sure they’re communicating with students effectively. But there’s the problem of getting students to read the emails and signs that administration produces. “The answer is: you can’t over-communicate,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing it in more subtle ways.” Holtgren mentioned specifically the scrolling announcements that play before each chapel service. Hurst also stressed the importance of making sure students are aware of the resources available to them through the Wellness Center. “In terms of Bethel students as a whole, we certainly want them to know that we’re here,” said Hurst, “And most students I think do. And even if they’re getting help from friends or staff who are not mental health clinicians, we can offer something maybe that the other people can’t sometimes just based on our knowledge and our training. But I’m a big believer that, especially in a college community, everybody working to help students is the way to go.” But there’s another side to this issue, and Hurst acknowledged that. “There is, for some students, still a stigma about coming here, an embarrassment,” he said. “Some students feel like it’s another degree of not being good enough, which is incorrect… it takes strength to seek help.” Dendiu mentioned this problem as well. “(People) have no problem going to the doctor when they’re sick,” said Dendiu, “but they have a little more (of a) problem admitting that there’s other kinds of things that they struggle with that they need help with.” Hurst said that confidentiality is very important to the counselors at the Wellness Center. “There’s nothing we value more as counselors on this campus than confidentiality," he said. "It’s a professional code, it’s a legal structure also for us… we have the tightest confidentiality of any place on campus.” Hurst explained that the only time that confidentiality would be broken is if there’s a student who is at serious risk of suicide, or in cases where knowledge surfaces of a young child or elderly person who may be being abused. What are students, faculty and staff to do with all of this information? “For students that are in the throes of one of these emotions or more…I hope they get help, I hope they talk about it, I hope they go to the Wellness Center, I hope they talk with their mentor, their parents, whoever,” said Holtgren. “But then, too, there’s a secondary audience, and I’m well aware that there are students who are not in the throes of depression, but they have friends who are…I think in helping them identify friends in their peer circle who may be struggling, and then they can be an assistance to them, I think that’s the secondary audience here.” “I can ask (students) and refer them to the Wellness Center, but it’s different for every kid,” said Brandt. “Some smaller cases, I can try to encourage them in certain ways but other kinds may be out of my control.” When asked about anxiety, he said: “You take it moment by moment and day by day, for God is in control.” Hurst explained a little about what the Wellness Center does currently in their counseling sessions. He uses an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy. He said they use it because it’s a specific approach. He said specifically that they don’t have students come in a just talk, but that they want to work to help them overcome their symptoms. The workbook he often uses is “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger. “What cognitive behavioral therapy really is about…is helping somebody who’s depressed by changing their thoughts, working to change their thinking,” Hurst said. The Bethel Beacon asked Dendiu how he thinks the chapel series will affect students. “I think at the very least these are some things you don’t talk about oftentimes,” he said. “So just, raising it to the awareness of saying, you know, it’s okay to talk about this stuff. You are not the only one who struggles with this.” Carlson mentioned that she feels like the administration could give students more than eight sessions a semester in the Wellness Center. She also feels that the Wellness Center is currently very overbooked and that, because of that, sometimes people are unable to get treated when they need it the most. Hurst said he thinks Bethel is effective in its dealings with these issues. “I think, on the whole, Bethel does a really good job,” he said. “I think there’s always things more of us could do more of… An example of something that Bethel does and supports is we’re doing depression screenings on campus, depression awareness day…” Holtgren said, “In student development we talk a lot with (residential assistants) and (residential directors) that it’s not wrong to say to a student who’s really in a deep depression, ‘are you thinking about hurting yourself?’” Dendiu made it clear that anxiety, depression and grief are all a natural part of life on earth, and there’s not a whole lot we can do to change that. But he did give suggestions on how to help those who are currently struggling. “Be willing to listen, support, encourage, pray for,” suggested Dendiu. “Don’t judge, take seriously what people say, suggest appropriate professional help if necessary.” Grief, anxiety and depression are real issues that affect people worldwide, and college students are a notoriously high population of those affected. Those involved in planning the week said they hope that by starting conversations about these issues, as well as communicating their own services to students, they can make Bethel a smaller part of that population. And that’s rather uplifting to hear.