College Students in Crisis Are Increasingly Turning to Religious Leaders for Help

Chaplains are now part of the mental health ecosystem.
Image: Ryan Wiedmaier/Flickr

Historically, a college chaplain—an individual with religious training who works for an institute of higher education—occupied the relatively traditional and limited space you’d imagine they would. Their role was primarily limited to the realm you’d think it would be: that of religion. They’d lead services and facilitate spiritual education, activities, and groups on campus.

But in recent decades, as religion has faded from public life nationwide, most chaplains increasingly focused less on liturgical services for their faith. Instead, they’ve taken on a more non-denominational hue, working with students and groups of all backgrounds on general issues like puzzling out the ethics of life in general, or finding a sense of meaning as dislocation and critical debate often tear at their old sense of identity.


They have also increasingly offered a more secular, and, one might argue, pressingly necessary service: Most chaplains are trained to some degree in pastoral care or counseling, according to Jan Fuller, a chaplain at Elon University and president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. This skill set prepares them to offer students and faculty alike confidential and safe spaces to open up about, as well as some therapeutic tools for coping with, both spiritual concerns and general life stresses.

As mental health issues on college campuses have come to the fore over the past couple of years, chaplains, whose training can be fluid and diverse, have gained a new appreciation for the scale and severity of their community’s needs. A 2017 survey by the American College Health Association found that 42 percent of students, for example, reported suffering anxiety and depression so severe that it at times hurt their ability to function academically. And a report out last year found that, as of 2017, 36 percent of college students had been clinically diagnosed with lifelong mental health issues.

This skill set prepares them to offer students and faculty alike confidential and safe spaces

Revelations about the scale and severity of the mental health concerns many of the students they encounter are coping with has forced some to realize they are actually not fully trained counselors, Fuller says. Not only can they not provide the full suite of services students with mental health issues may need, but they may not be aware of every issue facing them. For instance, Fuller says she only recently started considering how to accommodate students with eating disorders.


Simultaneously, says Sid Ypma, a college chaplain at the University of Ottawa, student awareness of chaplains has decreased. And for some who are still aware of them, skepticism has increased. “It used to be you could go to a chaplain very easily, but going to a counselor had a sort of stigma,” Fuller says. “Now I hear students saying, ‘I can go to a counselor, but I’m afraid to talk to a religious person.’” They seem to worry chaplains could use their vulnerability in a time of need to proselytize to them, as some claim they have in other institutional settings. Fuller insists that all the college chaplains she knows check their denominational identity at the door and never proselytize, because if they didn’t, “they’d be laughed out of the university.”

As colleges and universities rethink their mental health services, and chaplains confront their own limitations, it’s easy to wonder what role, if any, they could or should serve in a new constellation of student services. Yet even while recognizing their limitations, many chaplains believe that they still have a vital role to play within a larger and more robust mental health system.

“Chaplains must be a part of mental health service structures somehow,” Fuller argues. They can still offer some basic therapeutic services, like sitting with someone, listening to their problems, and helping them express their emotions. Those are services that would work for many students with low levels of stress and anxiety, often tied to life changes, interpersonal issues, or their course loads, says Shane Owens, a psychologist with a specialty in college and emerging adult mental health.


Image: University of Denver/Flickr

Fuller and others talk about offering these services as part of a “stepped care model,” a popular solution for schools looking to maximize their mental health resources and cut down on long waits for expert services. In such a system, students seeking mental health help at their school might not all see a specially trained counselor, as they often used to. Instead, their first point of mental health contact would assess the severity of their mental health needs, then direct those with more general and non-clinical concerns or issues to broader therapeutic services, of which the chaplain’s office would be one option for those willing to try it out.

They could choose to see chaplains at varied levels of frequency as well, rather than in required weekly meetings. Chaplains would also be able to serve as first points of contact themselves, referring people on to intensive, dedicated mental health services as needed. (These referrals might be students who are more comfortable with spiritual individuals and who would not otherwise have sought out or found their way to dedicated mental health services.) And they could serve as a support service for people who are already seeing a mental health professional regularly, but who might appreciate a spiritual element to their care.

When schools get better at providing such multi-level and pervasive care, students are caught before they might otherwise fall through the cracks, says Nance Roy, a psychologist and chief clinical officer at the college mental health-focused Jed Foundation. That means they often get help before something turns into a serious crisis or an acute issue where they might need a clinician or medical intervention. “If what you need is a community of care, we can be a part of that,” Fuller says.


Keeping chaplains in the mix makes sense, as they can offer some services others cannot. Many students are still spiritual, at least to some extent, points out Ypma. For these students, challenges to their spiritual identity brought on by the changes of college life may be the root of at least some of their low-level anxiety. So being able to funnel them towards a dedicated and competent spiritual resource is important, if not vital. Most health experts agree that, for spiritual students, the ability to receive a spiritually charged service alongside standard intensive mental health care, or rephrase care in spiritual terms, can improve outcomes.

Chaplains also often have more direct training than other faculty in basic therapeutic skills and experience fielding student concerns, Fuller says. “Some of our faculty are afraid of tears,” she says, by way of one example, while most chaplains are not. They could be an especially strong link in a stepped, community-wide care model, working with secular students too. According to Gary Ellison, a chaplain at Willamette University, many students seem amenable to this model if chaplains are introduced not by their title, but by their names and the context of the therapeutic tools and services they can offer. They can also help mental health professionals train other staff in basic student engagement and issue detection.

These services could prove useful at any school. But they may be vital for small schools with a serious lack of dedicated mental health resources, or with no specialized mental health staff at all. The fewer individuals available for students, the easier it is for limited resources to back up, leading to long wait times for mental health services or for people with less acute but still valid concerns to get bumped out of the system. The bigger the personnel crunch, the more relief chaplains can offer as a frontline step of care in such a campus-wide wellness system.


Even considering this potential, one might think at least some officials would be cautious about working chaplains into a community-wide stepped care model because, as Fuller says, “everybody’s worried about religion” these days—specifically proselytization and the line between secular and spiritual worlds. However, Ypma notes, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of pushback. Instead, he says, in the past year or two especially, he’s seen some universities reaching out to their chaplains rather than the other way around in an effort to explore all of their resources.

But even if there isn’t much pushback, many universities don’t seem to be considering chaplains in mental health retooling efforts in the first place. Many that do consider them, Fuller says, seem to call on their chaplains sporadically. And there is no consistent model for how to work chaplains into a mental health system when they are more systematically incorporated. Some of this likely has to do with the fact that, as Ellison notes, officials may not be familiar with chaplains and their services.

Another part, however, is likely a reflection of the fact that chaplains are not homogenous. They come from diverse educational and career backgrounds, so not all of them have the same type or level of training. Some universities might have chaplains able to serve their suicide prevention needs, Fuller says. Others may not. This variability, combined with varied levels and degrees of mental health needs at different schools, makes it hard to form models of chaplain engagement.

Ellison believes that new standards could eventually emerge for college chaplain posts at most universities, attracting people with consistently high levels of therapeutic training and skills. Ypma hopes that universities will start taking initiative to provide basic or advanced training for chaplains already working on their campuses as their relevance to community-wide care systems becomes apparent. Either eventuality could make it easier for chaplains or universities to come up with more systematized views of their role.

Those solutions are likely a long way off, though. For now, the experts largely agree, the best thing for most universities to do is to evaluate their needs and resources. Looking at the size and abilities of their existing mental health services systems, and at the training and skills of their chaplains, coordinators on both sides can come together and find the best ways of using chaplains’ skills to reinforce mental health care on campuses. That would allow chaplains to feel a little less lost, and much more useful, in their roles as community guideposts during this ongoing college mental health crisis. And it would likely help countless students in need as well.