Ask just about any university student, student life professional, or campus mental health counselor, and it’s pretty likely they’ll tell you the same thing about student mental health: Despite the robust resources on many campuses, services are still inadequate for the demand. While a recent survey here at the University of Chicago found that 60 percent of Ph.D. student respondents were “very” or “mostly satisfied” with campus psychological and counseling services, nearly one-fifth said they were “very dissatisfied.” Wait times can be a challenge as universities have to grapple with what feel like ever-increasing demands to treat anxiety, depression, and other common mental health challenges. (Indeed, UChicago is building a major new Student Wellness Center, scheduled to open in 2021, which will not only provide more space but also more staff.)

In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Gary Glass, director of counseling and career services at Oxford College of Emory University, makes an intriguing—and to this writer, quite compelling—proposal: “Perhaps,” Glass suggests, “we need to shift the way we think about student struggle and mental health toward empowering community transformation.” 

What does he mean? Glass fleshes out his observation:

Many students … receive services for problems that their counselors would not characterize as mental illness. What happens in therapy is an exploration of the themes and narratives underlying those diagnoses, through assessment of students’ daily thoughts, behaviors, relationships, histories and the often-intense fluctuations of their emotions. Then, depending on the theoretical orientation of the therapist, those conversations lead to topics such as exploring the world that students live in, the intersecting identities they carry, their thoughts, their emotions and the memories and aspirations they hold as they navigate through the challenges of their lives.

Glass concludes with a provocative question: “In framing all of these challenges in terms of mental health issues, are we reducing the role that other campus professionals—not to mention fellow students—can play in our students’ healing and growth?” He goes on to suggest, with support from social science research, that campuses invest more resources in efforts to enable students to build therapeutic relationships at other sites: career offices, leadership development centers, academic advising units, and so on.

While Glass does mention chaplains’ offices and spiritual and religious life staff as allies in a couple of places, as a former campus rabbi myself I couldn’t help but think about three things while reading his article. First: Amen—I couldn’t agree more. Second: These are precisely the kinds of relationships that campus religious professionals are uniquely positioned to build, and the kinds of work they are uniquely qualified to do. And third, questioning my second question: Are they really so uniquely qualified? And if so, what’s unique about that qualification?

To reflect on these questions, I went back to Sharon Daloz Parks’s classic work on young adulthood, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (Fortress Press, 2000)in which she observes that the “sense of having a viable network of belonging is key.” Critical awareness, which we can define here as partially consisting of the shattering of earlier narratives and underlying assumptions about the world, often comes at the same time as young adults are becoming full citizens and taking responsibility for their lives and world. Crucially, Parks observes, when a young adult is doing the difficult work of recomposing truth, trust, and a sense of power and agency, “the recognition, presence, care and faith of others can make all the difference. Boundaries of awareness can expand, and the person begins to move in new ways in the adult world of responsibility for discerning the nature of life itself, making judgments, and choosing actions—in the intellectual life; in the world of work; and within one’s family, community, and the wider commons” (93).

Parks’s use of faith is infused with both a developmental context and a religious pedigree rooted in twentieth-century American mainline Protestantism and 1970s feminism—which is not to discount it, not at all, but simply to locate it. She describes how young adults “mature in their faith” as dwelling “in a consciousness of an intricate, intimate pattern of life that is continuously in motion and yet holds at the level of ultimacy. Their faith is manifest as trust, knowledge, emotion, value, and action, permeating every facet of their existence” (32). It is this appeal to faith as “ultimacy,” with its Niebuhrian and Heschelian undertones, that, in my view, puts Parks’s writing in a different register from Glass’s column, and helps illuminate an approach to my question above: Is there something unique about campus religious professionals, and by extension religious workers in society at large, and if so, what is it?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think the answer is yes—there is something unique and important. As a colleague put it to me years ago: Clergy are some of the only people left in society who can use the subjunctive—to imagine not only what the world could look like, but what it should look like. The notion that there is ultimacy; the idea that we can speak of things that are good and true; and, most importantly, the insistence that we can speak of these things in community with others—these are still distinguishing features of religious life and religious traditions. On campuses and in a world that feels increasingly frayed and fraying, that insistence—the unyielding belief that we can still say the word “we” with a straight face—is in short supply and, it would seem, unending demand.

Image: Kenyon College chaplains, Marc Bragin and Rachel Kessler, converse with students during one of their weekly "Chat with the Chaplains" breakfasts. (Photo Credit: Eryn Powell | Kenyon College)​


Joshua Feigelson

Author, Joshua Feigelson, is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.