Blog | Topic: Faith & Learning

College Stress: What Parents Should Know about Student Depression

Stress_slideshow“Maybe you are depressed.” That was the last thing I expected to hear from a doctor my senior year of college. Depressed? I was doing well academically, was surrounded by a good group of friends and was a student leader for Athletes in Action, a sport’s ministry on campus. Why would I be depressed? But the symptoms were there. I was staying up most nights and sleeping during the day. I found myself getting tired without much physical activity. There were also small panic attacks combined with shortness of breath that would strike at random times. My self-diagnosis was a relapse of mononucleosis. After a series of negative tests, the campus physician suggested depression.

My story is not unique, of course. For the past decade, student mental health issues have increased at an alarming rate, leaving many college counseling centers strained. In 2004, Harvard University psychiatrist Richard Kadison’s groundbreaking book, College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It (Jossey-Bass) became a rallying cry for campuses to be equipped with better mental health services. A recent book by psychiatrist David Leibow, What to Do When College is Not the Best Time of Your Life (Columbia University Press) reminds those who care about college students that mental health issues are not going away.

From my experience working in campus ministry, I think parents and church leaders have a significant role to play in helping young college students navigate these challenges. What follows are five things parents and church leaders should know about the mental health of college students along with a few suggestions of how to respond:

First, a high percentage of college students battle anxiety and depression. According to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, within the last 12 months, 30 percent of students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function and 49 percent felt overwhelming anxiety. An additional 10 percent of students also reported being diagnosed or treated for depression and more than six percent seriously considered suicide. Statistics like these should open our eyes to the deeper needs of many of the college students in our communities.

Second, many students battling depression feel ashamed and alone. My own response to my depression surprised me. I didn’t know with whom  to talk. I was apprehensive about telling my parents and closest friends. What’s more, as a Christian, I wasn’t sure you were allowed to be depressed! After all, Jesus was in my heart, wasn’t he? It turns out that my response was quite common. In an interview for Inside Higher Ed, longtime psychiatrist Dr. Leibow explains that the majority of the patients he has seen “were capable, motivated students, with loving, appropriately involved parents.” So why were these kids floundering and keeping their parents in the dark? The answer, he realized, was shame. “They were ashamed because they believed—wrongly—that they were the only one of their peers having problems.”

It’s important for parents and youth workers to create safe places for their families to discuss mental health. Let young people in your family and church know that depression is a reality for many students. Be aware of the symptoms. And be honest about the culture of the Christian community you are a part. What do youth and college students think about depression as it relates to faith? Ask them.

Third, some students think they are a failure if they use medication for anxiety or depression. As a culture, there may be an increasing tendency to turn to medication too quickly. We need to be careful and discerning. When it comes to anxiety and depression, however, many students have a misguided understanding of antidepressants. Often they are simply used to correct imbalances in the levels of chemicals in the brain. According to the American Psychiatric Association, these “medications are not sedatives, ‘uppers’ or tranquilizers. Neither are they habit-forming. Generally, antidepressants have no stimulating effect on those not experiencing depression.” Parents, along with college ministers, have a role to play in the way they support students who have chosen to use medication. Let them know that God can work through medication to bring about positive change.

LearningForLoveOfGodFourth, the number one cause of stress and depression among college students is academic floundering. There are many issues that students face that can lead to stress and depression (homesickness, relational disappointments, financial worries, body-image problems), but according to a recent survey conducted by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, academics was at the top. I remember Brea, a local college student, offering this prayer request at a weekly bible study (her story is recounted in my coauthored book Learning for the Love of God: A Student’s Guide to Academic Faithfulness):

“Please pray for me. I’m feeling a lot of stress, and I’m not sure why. It’s not like I have more work this semester than normal. I just don’t know why I am learning what I am learning. I feel like if there was a reason for what I am learning, any reason beyond to get a grade, then I could work hard again. But in all of my classes, I can’t honestly tell you why I need to learn this stuff. I have no idea why this matters.”

Here’s how parents and college ministers can help relieve some of the academic stress students have when facing an incoherent curriculum: remind students why they study. Point them to Jesus, the Lord of learning, the One who holds all things together (Colossians 1:15-20). Teach students the centrality of learning within the biblical story and cast a vision for how college learning is preparing them to be used by God in their communities. To be a disciple literally means to be a student, a life long learner. Do students in your church love God with their minds? Are students able to articulate how their faith relates to their major? I echo Brea’s frustration: much of the stress around academics is because students don’t have good reasons for learning.

Fifth, students are surprised by the extra stress created by college breaks. One of the most well attended bible studies I’ve had with college students was around the theme “honoring your mother and father during the college years.” I invited an older couple to share with the group what they had learned from parenting college students. Students were eager to ask questions and enter the conversation. Here’s what we learned: communication is key. Encourage students to “honor parents” by having a conversation about parental expectations during college breaks.

Download the full article (.pdf) here

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Remembering C.S. Lewis (1898-1963): A Guide to Life and Learning

sbjSurprised by Joy, the autobiography by C.S. Lewis, was the first serious book I ever read. By serious, I mean, it was the first book I took seriously. It wasn’t an easy book to read either. For the first time with a book I wasn’t assigned in a class, I took notes. I underlined passages. I looked up words I didn’t know. Before the Internet this required having another book by my side. A dictionary, I think it was called.

I don’t even know where I got a copy. All I remember is that I was in college and I was beginning to ask “big questions” about life and faith. A few older people suggested I read something by C.S. Lewis. I learned that this is something many older Christians do when they’re not sure how to answer your questions. It’s a good strategy. Now I use it.

The phrase “it changed my life” is overused. It easily becomes cliché. But I don’t know how else to say it: reading C.S. Lewis changed my life. But here’s the thing… it has less to do with the words he wrote and more to do with what he represented as a person of faith. During the formative years of my life (college), I needed a model for living. Lewis, for me, was my first Christian mentor from afar, a guide for life and learning.

Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. I’ve been reflecting this week about all of the things Lewis has taught me. I offer my top three.

First, by reading C.S. Lewis I became a better student. It’s easy to adapt to playing the school game. Most of my schooling life was about doing the least amount of work required to get the grade desired. After reading Lewis, I had a renewed passion for learning. I wanted to know more about how ideas “worked” and where they came from. I began to see the connection of learning and living. Ideas have legs. Lewis taught me that Truth is important and should be taken seriously. And we should be willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. God is, after all, the source of all truth.

Second, by reading C.S. Lewis I learned that it is a possible to think and be a Christian at the same time. Maybe this is obvious to most people, but I had to learn it. I had to gain a vision for it, really. And Lewis was a model for me. After reading Surprised by Joy, Lewis’s story of journeying through atheism to Christianity, I remember thinking: if Lewis can be a Christian, I can be a Christian. Lewis didn’t seem bothered by the supposed challenges to the Christian faith. He took them on, offering engaging and thoughtful replies.

stlettersThird, by reading C.S. Lewis I learned that it is possible to be creative and a Christian at the same time. Unfortunately, in some Christian circles I was running in, creativity was often squelched. I don’t know any other way to say it. Some Christians, and some Christian traditions, seem to fear creativity. Not so for Lewis. In fact, he dedicated the latter years of his life to shaping the Christian imagination. The Narnia Chronicles and his The Space Trilogy are obvious examples, but my favorite Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters. A senior devil writes letters to a junior devil about how to keep someone from becoming a Christian. I couldn’t get enough of it. I still can’t. It’s the Lewis book I return to again and again.

There’s much to learn from C.S. Lewis. I didn’t even mention the many ways that his writing helped me answer tough questions about the faith. But it was his story and character that has shaped me the most.

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John Ortberg on Faith & Doubt

KnowDoubtNext Wednesday (October 30) I’ll be speaking at Malone University. I’ll do a chapel presentation in the morning, taking a deeper look at the implications of Colossians 1:15-20 for college students in a talk entitled “The Lord of All Learning.” Wednesday evening I’ll do a workshop with students about the place of doubt in the life of faith in a talk entitled “The Sunnier Side of Doubt.”

While doing a little prep work for next week, and thinking about my previous post, I was reminded of a lecture John Ortberg gave at Calvin College a few years ago. I highly recommend this video as well as the book it was inspired by Know Doubt: The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith. Enjoy!

Pastor John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church addresses the place of doubt within the life of faith. The lecture was a part of Calvin College’s January Series in 2009.

More resources for helping young people navigate doubt and take ownership of faith can be found here.

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How Does God Fit Into My Plans for College?

College1“I never would have thought much about how God fit into my plans for college. I would have just gone to class and tried to graduate.”

This was said to me last week by a student, shortly after a talk I gave at Brice’s Creek Bible Church in New Bern, North Carolina. The student’s words were so clear and compelling, I thought he was reading from a script. I even looked over his shoulder to see if someone was behind him telling him exactly what to say to me to encourage me the most! The student continued:

My head is really spinning. You really have me thinking. The thought never occurred to me that I could serve God or follow Jesus with a career in math and accounting. You’ve given me a whole new way to look at my faith and what I should be doing now to prepare.”

I spend a good amount of time speaking to teenagers, so hearing any kind of feedback is always encouraging. This student really seemed to “get it.” And, as my high school teacher friends like to tell me, if one student says something, he or she is probably speaking for many more students in the room. I hope so!

How does God or faith or the Gospel fit into plans for college? This question is at the heart of the College Transition Initiative (CTI), and it will be at the center of several talks I will be giving this week. Here’s the busy CTI schedule… I hope to see you there! Prayers appreciated.

Monday, October 7: College Fair, Lancaster, PA (details)

Tuesday, October 8: College Fair, Milton, PA (details)

Thursday, October 10: College Fair, Old Bridge, NJ (details)

Saturday, October 12: College Choice Seminar, East Earl, PA (details)

More upcoming events.

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FREE Webinar: The Best Books for Pastors, Parents and Youth Workers

Top 10 Reading from Byron WebinarTop Ten (or so) Picks for Your Summer Reading

June 27 – 1:00pm (EDT)

Click here to register.

Join me as I ask CPYU’s favorite bookseller, Byron Borger, to suggest the best books to read this summer. Byron owns Hearts & Minds, a bookstore in Dallastown, PA and has been in the book business for over 30 years. He enjoys crafting custom-made lists for specific audiences. He is a long-time friend of us here at CPYU and has agreed to offer a list for us. Listen in as he shares key titles to inspire us in our tasks as parents, youth workers and Christian leaders.

Watch a video of Byron discussing why reading matters here:

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Rethinking Worldview: J. Mark Bertrand Interview

Bertrand_slideshowThe term worldview is now widely used in discussions about faith, philosophy, culture and education. The word jumped into English from the German, Weltanschauung, and has become increasingly familiar in the last fifty years, especially in some Christian circles. Many Christians latched onto the term because it helped to describe the all-encompassing, cosmic scope of the Gospel. The Christian faith is not just a religion, but a way of life that has far-reaching implications for the way we “see” reality and live in the world. A worldview is a vision of life and for life. Familiarity often breeds contempt, however. While many agree that the popularity and wide-spread acceptance of the concept has been a good thing for the church, some critics suggest proceeding with caution when teaching that Christianity is a worldview.

J. Mark Bertrand has spent much of his adult life teaching young people the value of understanding worldviews and thinking “Christianly” about all areas of life. But he too has concerns about the misuse and misapplication of the term. In his book Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Crossway) Bertrand seeks to capture a more complex, nuanced appreciation of what worldviews really are. Bertrand has a degree in English from Union University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston. He is also the author of a successful 3-part series of “Roland March” detective novels (Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds and Nothing to Hide). What follows is an interview with Bertrand about worldview and how the concept, when properly understood can help young people grow in faith…

Download the interview (.pdf) here.

Read more expert interviews here.

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Dallas Willard and the Kingdom of God: A Tribute

DallasIMGmedDallas Willard, USC philosophy professor and Christian writer, died of cancer yesterday. It is being reported that his last words were “Thank you.” Fitting. I have only known Dr. Willard through his books and speaking, but it was obvious that he lived a life of grace and gratitude. His books were a gift to the church.

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God has been one of the most important books I have ever read. It had a memorable entry into my personal library. It’s hard to forget. I bought the book on September 10, 2001 from Hearts & Minds Bookstore (recommended by my good friend Byron Borger) and started reading it on September 11th around 8:30am. I put the book aside at 9:05am to turn on the TV to see who had won the Monday Night Football game the day before. I don’t remember who won. But I do carry with me two profound memories from that day: the sight of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center and reading this paragraph from The Divine Conspiracy:

“Jesus came among us to show and teach the life for which we were made. He came very gently, opened access to the governance of God with him, and set afoot a conspiracy of freedom in truth among human beings. Having overcome death he remains among us. By relying on his word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life in the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life. Caught up in his active rule, our deeds become an element in God’s eternal history. They are what God and we do together, making us part of his life and him a part of ours.”

It is, perhaps, my favorite paragraph about Jesus. I reflect upon it every Christmas. I thought about it yesterday when well-intentioned people broke the news by saying “Dallas Willard has gone to be with the Lord.” I understand and appreciate the sentiment. And it is true. Dallas Willard is now with Jesus. But I couldn’t help but think about how much of his life he devoted to inviting people to see that Jesus is with us now. Today. The Kingdom is “at hand.” Jesus is in our midst this moment. No other writer has made me more aware of that reality.

Here are a few other things I learned from Dallas Willard:

Dallas Willard was an astute observer of cultural trends. In The Divine Conspiracy he retells a story of a Harvard University student who received all As in courses on “moral reasoning” and “ethics” and yet continually, sexually harassed a female classmate. He writes, “There now is no recognized moral knowledge upon which projects of fostering moral development could be based.” (Dr. Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge more fully addresses the disconnection between character formation and education.) But my favorite cultural observation is this:

TDC“And just think of a world in which little children sing, ‘I wish I were a [certain kind of] wiener. That is what I really want to be. For if I were [that certain kind of] wiener. Everyone would be in love with me.’ Think of what it would mean to be a weenie, or for someone to love you as they ‘love’ a hot dog. Think of a world in which adults would pay millions of dollars to have children perform this song in ‘commercials’ and in which hundreds of millions, even billions, of adults find no problem in it. You are thinking of our world. ”

Dallas Willard challenged Christians to reconsider the content of the Gospel message proclaimed by the contemporary church. I think this was his greatest contribution. He identified the “Gospel on the right” with only having “good news” for overcoming death and he identified the “Gospel on the left” with only having “good news” for the oppressed. He writes:

“The disconnection of life from faith, the absence from our churches of Jesus as teacher… is largely caused and sustained by the basic message that we constantly hear from Christian pulpits. We are flooded with what I have called ‘gospels of sin management,’ in one form or another, while Jesus’ invitation to eternal life now—right in the midst of work, business, and profession—remains for the most part ignored and unspoken.”

Dallas Willard concluded that many of the problems we face is “nothing but the natural consequence of the basic message of the church as it is heard today.” He continues, “It would be foolish to expect anything else than precisely what we have got.” Dr. Willard offers three important questions to consider when presenting the Gospel:

1. Does the gospel I preach and teach have a natural tendency to cause people who hear it to become full-time students of Jesus?
2. Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural “next step”?
3. What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message?

Dallas Willard helped me to ask better questions about things that matter most. His writing has had a profound influence on my life and work. One more favorite quote from The Divine Conspiracy:

“We are, all of us, never-ceasing spiritual beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God’s great universe.”

Amen. Thank you, Dallas Willard.

I highly recommend these two, short articles as a good introduction to the work of Dallas Willard:

Who Is Your Teacher?

Rethinking Evangelism

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Jubilee Conference 2013: Transform Everything!

JubileeIt’s that time of year: Jubilee! The annual Jubilee Conference is held in Pittsburgh, PA in February and brings together 2,500+ college students to “talk, learn, think, and dream about the public implications of their personal transformation… Whether students are interested in engineering and science or art and music, law and politics or medicine and mission, justice and families or college life and the years to come, Jubilee will have someone speaking about what it means to be involved in those places faithfully.” The conference theme this year is “Transform Everything” and along with my emcee duties, I will be co-leading, with my good friend Keith Martel, a breakout session entitled “Transform Learning: Renewing the College Experience.”

The Jubilee Conference is part of the mission of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. The CCO is a campus ministry that partners with churches, colleges and other organizations to develop men and women who live out their Christian faith in every area of life.

Here’s what I love about Jubilee: the Jubilee Conference is committed to helping students better understand and live out the biblical story. In his important book, After Virtue, the renowned philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wrote, “I can only answer the question: what am I to do? if I answer the prior question: of what story do I find myself apart?” College students are asking big questions:

What is the meaning of life?
What is my purpose?
What kind of career should I pursue?
Where does my identity come from?
What difference does it make to believe in Jesus?

All of the main-stage presentations at the Jubilee Conference invite students to answer that prior question: “of what story do I find myself apart?” On what story is their life based? The presenters than explore the implications of the biblical story (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) for academic pursuits and future vocations. There really is nothing like the Jubilee Conference and it’s an honor to be a part of it each year!

Check out this video to encourage students to “sign-up maybe?”

Download the 2013 Program Booklet here.

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How To Choose a College: Pray, Prepare, Pursue

HowtoChooseCollegeI (Matt Reitnour) entered the field of college admission at a small, private, Christian institution in Western New York during the fall of 2001. I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an admission counselor (who does?) but shortly after starting my new job, I realized that the work suited my interests and abilities. Roughly a decade later I made the transition to college counseling at a private, college preparatory school, where I regularly draw upon my experiences in college admission. Though there are differences between my past and current positions, one commonality is that they both provide opportunities to serve and guide students and parents in a process that can be agonizing, exciting, overwhelming and critically important all at the same time. That process is, of course, the college search.

Navigating the college search can be challenging. For starters, there are a lot of schools out there! If you lump all the post-secondary institutions in the United States together you wind up with a figure in excess of 4,000. Granted, this number can be broken down into more manageable chunks based on institution type (universities, liberal arts colleges, trade schools, Bible colleges, etc.), but the bottom line is that you’re still left with a veritable cacophony of choices. How are high school students and their parents to decide among all of these options?

Download the rest of the article (.pdf) by Matt J. Reitnour here.

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Finishing Strong: Advice for Parents of High School Seniors

We try to finish strong in almost every area of life. Runners sprint toward the finish line. Sports’ teams make a final push to make the playoffs. Candidates deliver their best speeches right before Election Day. Retirees talk about moving from success to significance. And then there is high school. Many students coast through their final year. Limping toward the finish line has become the norm. There’s even a word for it: “Senioritis.” With 11 years of schooling behind them, some students develop an allergic reaction to institutions of education.

It might be easy for parents to adapt a similar posture and coast through the final year of parenting a high-schooler. Raising teens is hard work. While most students are ready for high school to be over, many parents might be just as ready for their kids to move on. It’s understandable. But that attitude could cause parents to miss a remarkable opportunity to engage their teens in more meaningful conversations. And teens need it.

According to William Damon of Stanford University, only 20 percent of teens “express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish and why.” Many students don’t seem to know why or if they want to go to college, what they want to study or what kind of career they want to pursue. I recently heard one student put it like this: “Going to college would be a waste of my time and my parent’s money. I have no idea what I want to do after high school.”

It’s easy to be frustrated by a young person’s apathy and lack of vision for the future, but have we done enough to equip teens with a better vision for how to make the most of their senior year? In his eye-opening book, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School, sociologist Timothy Clydesdale suggests: “More can be done to encourage those teens who do want to examine the purpose or direction of their lives by engaging them at deeper levels before the first year out of high school.” As your teens get ready to transition to their senior year, here is a “3-D vision” to keep in front of them…

Download the full article (PDF) here.

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