Ali, Lawendy and Dwyer: Faith-based mental health supports for students need a boost
More and more during the pandemic, young people are turning to these services on campus. Yet most chaplains are volunteers or funded entirely by private donations or religious community groups.
COVID-19 has placed unprecedented constraints on society, magnifying existing systemic deficiencies and highlighting where more assistance is needed. One such area is the support offered to post-secondary students, currently experiencing a collective mental-health crisis. Heightened levels of stress combined with increased isolation due to online classes have taken a terrible toll on students.
The issue has become so profound that universities are struggling to respond. In their time of need, students are reaching out for faith-based support even when they know little about what those services entail. While many students are finding solace through chaplaincy services, these services are grossly under-supported, pointing to the need for universities to invest more.
Since the Fall of 2020, the number of calls for student chaplaincy has tripled and the burden of what students are carrying is also increasing in weight and scope.
Nimao Ali, a Carleton University chaplain, has noted that student fears about not seeing family, about the lack of a clear timeline for when things could return to normal, and about getting the virus itself have dominated consultations. With classes going virtual and sometimes asynchronous, the sense of being totally alone while overwhelmed has pushed countless students to the point of emotional breakdown. Ali has also noticed the burden that the excessive number of emails now takes on students who feel compelled to keep up by clicking on everything.
Rania Lawendy, a chaplain for the University of Waterloo, has also found that the mental stress being carried by students is exacerbated by the isolation, lack of community and peer support. Even though asynchronous learning and professor burnout affects everyone, Lawendy has found that first-year students are impacted the most as the pandemic has affected their ability to join clubs, meet classmates socially and integrate at the start of their degrees.
A similar pandemic phenomenon has been noted by Imam Yasin Dwyer, a chaplain at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University, who has seen a sharp increase in feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts in students.
That these students are reaching out for help is promising, and more importantly, that there are people to help them when they ask is life-saving. Spiritual counselling has a profound effect on a student’s sense of hope. Chaplains help even students who do not follow a particular spiritual path cultivate a sense of purpose while navigating life’s stressors.
As Dwyer notes, “We need to expand our spiritual window to learn how to sit with life’s discomforts since God has not promised us an easy life. Rather, God has provided us with a spiritual template anchored in divine mindfulness to help us navigate our way through the difficult moments” – something accessible by anyone, regardless of background or creed.
For Ali, it isn’t about pushing down the feelings of anxiety or fear, but rather, helping students explore them while seeking guidance from God to overcome obstacles.
Given how many students come to chaplains with suicidal ideation developed in a state of extreme pain from isolation, and just how many students then find safety with these pastoral caregivers, one would think chaplaincy would be high on the list of priorities for post-secondary institutions. Unfortunately, this is not the case, with most chaplains being volunteers or funded entirely by private donations or religious community groups. Carleton’s Ali, for instance, is a volunteer.
Universities should reflect on this deficiency and invest in more dedicated and long-term sustainable solutions for providing chaplaincy services. Similarly, dedicated government funding could go towards student mental health. The need to take care of the hearts and minds of students, helping to build what we hope is a post-pandemic world, has never been more apparent. The time to act for student care is now.
Nimao Ali is a chaplain at Carleton University and the principal of the Muslim Association of Canada Abraar School. Rania Lawendy is a chaplain at University of Waterloo and the principal of the Muslim Association of Canada Maple Grove School. Imam Yasin Dwyer is a chaplain at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University.