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Mental health and ‘having faith’

Volunteer counsellors at CMU work with students at a religious institution

Beth Downey Sawatzky
By Beth Downey Sawatzky, Manitoba Correspondent
May 17, 2017 | Volume 21 Issue 11

After retiring from professional service almost two years ago, Valentine (Val) Warkentin found she missed her work as a counsellor and accepted an invitation to volunteer at Canadian Mennonite University. Many kinds of mental illness only develop, or present for the first time, during a person’s teen years and early-twenties, which makes academic institutions dynamic and challenging contexts for her work. “The stresses and expectations in schools result in students being particularly vulnerable. The most common problems I run into are anxiety and depression, sometimes including thoughts of suicide.”

John Weier, also a counsellor at CMU, elaborates: “Most of the students who come me begin by talking about anxiety, sometimes about panic attacks. They may not mention the word ‘depression,’ but it does seem to lurk there at the back of their throats. Well, there are lots of great reasons for us all to be anxious. The world seems often to be teetering on the edge of disaster. The state of the environment, the political climate, the violence that exists in our world, all are causes for concern.

“And for students, they’re embarking on their adult lives. They’re choosing partners, choosing careers, writing exams, passing and failing. Yikes! Lots of great reasons to feel panic. Still, it does seem with most visitors that there is something hidden in the backdrop. Something deeper, behind the anxiety, that’s causing trouble. Am I okay? Am I normal? Am I loveable? If I fail this exam will my family still love me? Will I still be able to have a good life?

“Let me ask you: What is that ache deep inside you? In your darkest nights, sitting alone in the living room, what’s the question that brings tears to your eyes? I think we all have this deep ache and I think we all have these questions. Sometimes, for some of us, this ache becomes almost unbearable and we decide to pay attention. That brings us to the counselling room.”

 In her office, Warkentin finds students often sit at a crossroads of fragility and resilience: they are students, battling all the dragons Weier describes, but they are also people of faith who have chosen to study and often live in a religious context. She says “students talk about prayer as having a calming effect, as a way to find relief from their pain for a time.” It begs the question—what role does faith play in the lives of students battling to maintain good mental health?

Weier suggests it comes down to whether a student’s religion offers a practical inventory of beneficial resources:

“As counsellors, most of us are trying to help students gather their resources. What is it that makes you feel strong? What is it that gives you a sense of relief from these disturbing feelings? Most of us have a complement of activities, friends, beliefs that help make our lives rich and meaningful. But in times of distress it’s often easy to forget what these resources are. One of the counsellor’s jobs is to help the visitor find these resources again. So faith? Sure, I think faith can be a really strong resource for health and well-being. When I think of the atmosphere that institutions like CMU strive to provide—accepting to all, readily offering forgiveness, mercy, grace—it seems to me that’s the kind of atmosphere that offers resources and resilience for students,” Weier says.

“But what if faith becomes narrow and inflexible? What if in faith we find guilt instead of forgiveness?” he asks. “Maybe faith can also be a detriment.”

Warkentin, too, has seen religion become problematic: “Institutional religion—which is not to say any particular institution, or even faith itself—sometimes tends to be judgmental, to the point of being spiritually abusive. Those who think prayer or religious faith are the only answers to a mental health problem often fail to understand the complexity and reality of mental health issues.”

Nevertheless, she concedes that Christian values are important in informing her practice: “The call from Jesus to love and not judge is a significant mantra in my life and work.”

The good news, she says, is the situation for young people struggling with mental illness in this country—inside and outside the church—is improving markedly.

“I love working with students. I am honoured when they trust me with the difficulties they are experiencing and I have been encouraged by their openness to share their struggles. This indicates to me that the stigma is decreasing. When I was growing up, mental health concerns were a family secret and considered shameful. After 29 years working in a college, I have seen a significant increase in students, especially men, seeking counselling.”

Weier agrees, it is in the moments of real connection that the true worth and importance of his vocation comes to light, and even the word “faith” takes on new meaning.

“I think probably I don’t see faith so much as a fixed entity but rather as a process of life and growth. And that’s exactly what happens in counselling. Here are two people trying to learn and grow together, learning to have faith in each other.”

See more in the Focus on Mental Health series:
On becoming a better person
Walking toward wellness
Shimmering peace in the midst of darkness
Healing for soul and spirit
Being the church in an age of anxiety
When mental illness drops in at church
Learning to let go
Students find relaxation through ‘puppy therapy’


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