When Life is Not What it Seems…

by Jess Smith

We shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter mental health issues within our ministries, but often we are.

At the beginning of the year, we meet hundreds of students as they first arrive on campus, keen to throw themselves into uni life and ministry. But sometimes there are things that hold them back. Even for mature Christians, including some of our student leaders, there can be issues under the surface that make ministry participation – and life itself – difficult to handle.

Research indicates that mental health issues[1] amongst university students are significantly higher than the general population with a prevalence of one in five students having a mental health problem, as well as many more with at least some symptoms.[2]

We shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter mental health issues within our ministries, but often we are. Part of the problem is the hidden nature of these illnesses. Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, many sufferers learn to hide their symptoms. Even within church communities, there is often a lack of understanding. People are told to just “snap out of it” or “cheer up”, and too often this is coupled with flawed theology that may end up being dismissive of the real struggles people are facing.

In a university ministry context, students are often left struggling in silence under the weight of expectations, whether real or perceived. Being involved in a group like the EU may also place additional, and at times unrealistic, expectations on students to ‘have it all together.’

As EU staff, we often find ourselves pastorally caring for students who are suffering from mental illnesses. As such, we need to be more aware of the issues at play, in order to love and serve students better. Yet we also recognise that we are not professionally trained to deal with the complexity of these disorders.

So we ask you, our supporters, to please pray for wisdom and sensitivity for our staff team and for the students whom we serve.

[1] Often referred to as ‘the black dog’ (as Winston Churchill labeled his depression). If you would like more information about mental illness check out www.beyondblue.org.au or www.blackdoginstitute.org.au   

[2] Stallman, H. M. (2010). Psychological distress in university students: a comparison with general population data. Australian Psychologist, 45(4), 286–294.

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