Religious groups on college campuses increasingly engaged with students’ wellness, mental health needs

Seeing a need for more expansive pastoral care, some campuses’ Muslim and Jewish religious groups are adding mental health clinicians and training religious leaders to refer students for counseling—particularly historically marginalized students seeking mental health professionals who understand their religious and cultural backgrounds, according to The Hechinger Report. These religious groups also are equipping students to care for each other, encouraging them to take courses like those offered by Mental Health First Aid about detecting mental health warning signs and guiding peers to the help they need during a mental health crisis.

Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that youths ages 18 to 24 are more likely than other age groups to experience mental, behavioral, or emotional health issues. The pandemic has exacerbated those issues, with demand for in-person and telehealth mental health services increasing. Recognizing that mental health professionals may not always understand students’ specific religious or cultural references, campus religious groups hope to help bridge those gaps.

Reaching out to Muslim students

The Muslim Mental Health Initiative (MMHI) at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University has placed Muslim-identifying therapists on college campuses and facilitates partnerships between student groups and local organizations providing psychological services rooted in Islamic principles. Developed by Dr. Rania Awaad, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an Affiliate Chaplin at the university, MMHI connects Muslim students with mental health professionals who are familiar with their religious and cultural backgrounds and can be sounding boards if they face religious discrimination.

“To me, it’s like night and day,” Awaad told The Hechinger Report. “The students, when they know that support is there, there’s something to fall back on, they feel a sense of belonging, which is really, really important.”

Supporting mental health in Jewish campus communities

To reach Jewish students in need of counseling services, a pilot program from Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, is adding licensed providers and wellness-focused staff to campus Hillel chapters. “Walking into a campus mental health facility is different than walking into a Hillel building,” Amee Sherer, the executive director of Hillel at the University of Washington, told The Hechinger Report. “This is a safe space for them, we hope.”

The organization also is training staff and students at Hillel chapters across the country to recognize when students need professional help. In addition, the programs are hosting events such as Shabbat meals, open mic nights, and workshops that foster self-expression and community for those confronting antisemitism.

Inclusive pastoral care at Georgetown
In its commitment to cura personalis, or “care of the whole person,” Georgetown’s Office of Mission & Ministry supports the largest and most diverse campus ministry program in the country. The university houses over two dozen residential ministers from different faith traditions, professions, and cultural backgrounds in residence halls and apartments across campus.

These residential ministers serve as mentors and an important safety net as students explore their spirituality, make career choices, and navigate personal growth and struggles. In addition to providing an inclusive pastoral presence, residential ministers create weekly opportunities for students to meet with friends over shared community meals, helping students to develop a sense of belonging at Georgetown. 

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