In times like these, we need faith
February 8, 2022
A recent article in the “Boston Globe” was titled “‘The Urgency Is Greater Than It Has Ever Been’: Four Suicides Rock WPI Campus as Colleges Grapple with Student Mental Health Concerns.” Tragic suicides at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a renowned engineering school, have made it part of a national conversation on student mental health. In the 2020–21 academic year, 41 percent of students nationally reported symptoms of depression, 34 percent reported anxiety, and more than 24 percent reported seriously considering suicide in the past year.[i] These statistics have been exacerbated by a pandemic that has raged for nearly two years.
COVID-19 has also clearly caused developmental delays that are impacting students. Consider Robert Kegan’s framework for the stages of selfhood.[ii] Between ages 6 and 8, children undergo a pattern of selfhood called the Imperial Self, where they are embedded in their needs, wishes, and interests. Between ages 11 and 13, children transition to the Interpersonal Self where values, commitments, and relationships are recognized as central to identity, and worth is tied to approval and affirmation of significant others. In young adulthood and beyond, we transition to the Institutional Self. In this stage, the self that was previously sustained by its relationships and roles now examines and struggles with the question of identity and worth apart from its previously defining connections. This stage marks an emergence from a conforming identity to a self-authoring identity.
According to Kegan, stage progression is based on developmental changes, such as maturation, or reconstructive changes, such as a disruptive experience, and socialization is an important catalyst to spark these changes. However, socialization has been deeply impacted by the pandemic. We would expect to see students transition from the interpersonal to the institutional self throughout their collegiate years, but because of COVID, the processes of deconstructing and reconstructing did not happen in the same ways. As a result, our students are not as mature in their psychological development. And wanting conformance, they are far less likely to admit that they are struggling or to ask for help if no one else is doing so. Sadly, conformance can also mean that ideation can increase as more students attempt suicide. In addition, under pressure, they may even act out of the imperial self, which is dominated by one’s needs, wishes, and interests.
We need to reclaim a generation with the love that comes from God through Jesus Christ. They need to know that we are here to listen and show compassion. They need the support of advocates who are willing to provide mental health counseling services. They need us to be unflinchingly present and unafraid to stand with them in this time of struggle.
The lack of a faith foundation may also play a part in developmental delays. Faith is the most important value that we can give our children, because every aspect of human development has faith as a foundation. When our faith is in balance, it serves as the anchor by which all decisions are made. But when our faith is out of balance, our intellectual pursuits may be self-serving, we may seek emotional fulfillment through sensuality or popularity, we may view our physical bodies as a private asset solely for personal enjoyment, and our moral decisions may be determined by worldly perspectives. Yet many parents struggle to give their children a faith foundation. As a pastor, I spoke with parents who wanted to let their children come to faith on their own. But arguably, what fills the void of self-discovery are the influences of others, particularly through social media. According to a 2019 survey by Common Sense Media, on average children between the ages of 8 and 12 spend 4 hours and 44 minutes per day viewing on-screen media, and teens spend on average7 hours and 22 minutes per day.[iii] This does not include the time spent on screen during school or for homework.
So, if our students are spending significant amounts of time on social media and are without the benefit of a faith foundation, they may lack the anchoring balance that faith provides, especially during times of challenge. In 2003 George Barna noted that the probability of someone receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was 32 percent for those between the ages of 5 and 12; 4 percent for those between 13 and 18; and 6 percent for people age 19 and older.[iv] His conclusion was that if people did not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior before reaching their teenage years, the chance of their doing so was slim.[v] Now, eighteen years later, these are college-aged young adults: those who may not have been exposed to or accepted Jesus as children, who may have been impacted by COVID-caused developmental delays, and who may have been exposed to thousands of hours of social media and its influences on their young lives. These are also the students who report significant levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.
What can we do? As a university administrator, I have a renewed perspective on what is necessary. We need to reclaim a generation with the love that comes from God through Jesus Christ. They need to know that we are here to listen and show compassion. They need the support of advocates who are willing to provide mental health counseling services. They need us to be unflinchingly present and unafraid to stand with them in this time of struggle. We can be all these things and more if we operate from our grounded foundation of faith. The urgency has never been greater, for as the hymn declares, in times like these we need an anchor that holds and grips Jesus, the solid Rock.
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is dean of the business school of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a premiere science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)–based institution that develops adaptive leaders who create sustainable solutions, deliver globally responsible impact, and conduct transformative research at the intersection of business, technology, and people. Her book Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership, is available from Judson Press.
[i] Laura Krantz, “‘The Urgency Is Greater Than It Has Ever Been’: Four Suicides Rock WPI Campus as Colleges Grapple with Student Mental Health Concerns,” “Boston Globe,” December 20, 2021.
[ii] Robert Kegan, “The Evolving Self: Problems and Process in Human Development” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).
[iii] Rideout, and M. B. Robb, “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens” (San Francisco: Common Sense Media, 2019), 3.
[iv] George Barna, “Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions: Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority” (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 34.