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Space at the Table: Creating Opportunities for Important Mental Health Conversations on Campus and in the Community

News Nov. 19, 2018

The conversation began with her daughter. But then she started noticing it everywhere—in Facebook posts, emails and conversations with radio listeners. So many people, in one way or another, were struggling with issues related to body image.

As a result, Patty Riva, director of marketing and promotions at WCSG, decided to do something about it. She went to work creating an event for the community designed to educate and provide a place for women and men to talk about their struggles openly and honestly.

Scott Courey, director of counseling, health and wellness at CU, has also noted a persistent, upward trend in mental health struggles. According to him, student mental health issues have been steadily increasing in rate and severity across college campuses. A 2017 Center for Collegiate Mental Health study cited a 30 percent increase in student visits to counseling centers between 2009 and 2015, while enrollment grew less than 6 percent. From anxiety that presents as panic attacks, phobias or OCD to depression, suicidal risk or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), many students arrive on campus with complex issues for which they seek help.

Meanwhile, Courey has also noted a shift among young people toward being more transparent about their struggles. While this kind of openness might not have been as acceptable in faith communities of past generations, to this one, it’s essential. “If we don’t make this shift toward engaging students and encouraging honest conversations about their struggles, we’ll simply continue to see more problems develop—and increase in severity.”

Space for Conversations

For Riva, encouraging conversations to help those struggling with body image resulted in WCSG’s first “Seeing You” event held in February 2018. Nearly 800 people attended the event, which included a keynote by Leslie Goldman, a women’s health writer, speaker and body image expert, and a Q&A panel of five women who shared their personal struggles with body image. The event was so successful that another is being planned, this time to focus on Christian college students.

“We couldn’t get all the questions in during the Q&A panel, so we knew this was an event that needed to happen again. It wasn’t just a ‘one-and-done’ thing,” said Riva.

She points out that we all know mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and wives struggling with this issue. “We need to help educate each other and bring our struggles into the light so we can have open and honest conversations,” adds Riva.

For the next event, Riva would like to see every student possible in attendance–including men, who she says play a vital role in the conversation. “Learning together about the effects media and social media can have on us is crucial,” she says. “And then together, we can remind and encourage one another to see ourselves through God’s eyes.”

Space for Growth

For Courey, strengthening CU’s traditional undergraduate mental health and health services has meant creating a culture of comprehensive wellness through an initiative called THRIVE. THRIVE is designed to “Promote Wellness in All Things” and offer a practical outworking of Jesus’ words, “Look! I am making all things new.”

As a result, CU has expanded its physical space for counseling, wellness and health services and increased its number of counseling interns (largely staffed by Grand Rapids Theological Seminary’s counseling students) to eight. In addition, new wellness spaces have been added to offer positive ways (other than traditional counseling) to encourage student mental health, including a massage chair, a prayer and meditation room and a new biofeedback room, where students can learn to lower their heart rate through breathing exercises.

Courey says his team is also developing stronger networks with outside mental health providers to assist with more complex or long-term student needs.

As a campus-wide initiative, THRIVE encourages stakeholders across campus to work together strategically to promote comprehensive wellness. For example, Courey’s team trains Resident Assistants each year, offers combined events with Resident Directors and has regular conversations with faculty to help them understand how to best support their stressed students.

Health Services also educates students about proactive physical wellness through things such as flu shots and the importance of sleep as well as offering hands-on tools for handling stress like “De-Stress with Dogs” during exam time. “Our goal is to get these conversations out of the counseling silo and into the broader community conversation,” says Courey.

Space for Healing

The work CU is doing to create a culture of comprehensive wellness (body, soul and mind) is important because it’s exactly how Jesus taught us to care for ourselves and for one another. “If we believe in the comprehensive restoration of all things through Christ, we can’t divide the spiritual life from our physical, emotional or relational health,” says Courey. “For some reason, we often split those into different categories, but Jesus never did.”

An essential part of caring for our spiritual wellbeing is caring for our mental and physical wellbeing, and through CU’s and WCSG’s efforts, the university is creating plenty of room at the table for restoration and healing.

GRTS M.A. Counseling Program

“As we consider the increase in mental illness, life stage changes, relational pain and stress, there’s a growing need for highly skilled professional counselors,” says Ashley Nichols VanBemmelen, director of admissions for GRTS.

She says the counseling program at GRTS remains one of the most competitive programs in the area for individuals interested in a counseling career. The program offers a biblical foundation, combined with clinical mental health education and skill, which prepares students to work as professional counselors. With both a residential and online offering, students can choose a schedule that matches their needs.

For more information, call 800.697.1133.

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