Faith or faithfulness: Reflecting on the role of spirituality and the mental health of university students.

It is 2018, and I have just started a job at one of the universities in the UK. The first day was hectic; my brain was overloaded with information. Meeting different faces in a short time of space and each offering advice was overwhelming. My emotions were in an overdrive (over speeding, I should say) with a sprinkle of anxiety. As my role was a new one at the University, I was, therefore, the first to take on the role of a Mental Health Adviser (MHA). So I had to start from scratch, which I suppose can be good and bad. Do not get me wrong; I was excited to start this new job. The first job outside of the NHS. And oh, I still do love my old job, but nothing compares to the privilege of engaging with university students and holistically sharing experiences. Hmmm, I can hear you asking what my previous job was. Ok, because you asked. You see, I am a mental health nurse first (one of the best decisions I have ever made). And after several years in the NHS, I worked as a Student Mental Health Advisor (MHA) at a university. This was before starting my current job as a mental health lecturer. My passions are student mental health and faith. Now you see why I pursued this role as a student MHA, which I would like to talk more about.
After a few weeks as an MHA, I started to enjoy it. I supported more and more students to get on with their studies and improve their learning experience.

What does a University Mental Health Adviser do to improve the learning experiences for students?

Ok, here is the thing: first, I had to draw on equality, diversity, and inclusion while treating every student individually and actively listening to what they said and did not say. I tell you, it gave me a holistic insight into the experiences of university students. I quickly learned what I now refer to as ‘reverse assessment.’ What does that mean, you ask? The students were assessing me as I was assessing them. And it soon dawned on me that while some shared their experiences, others chose what to tell or not tell me. For example, many expressed that they were worried that disclosing mental health challenges could negatively impact their studies.

So what did you do?

I had to produce a strategy to encourage students to share their experiences of mental health difficulties so that the university could support them better. It was time to revisit perhaps the essential skill of mental health nursing ‘establishing rapport. Good rapport not only improves the chances of a positive outcome but also makes the professional and the one seeking support more human. Therefore, my objective was to remove this hierarchical barrier to establishing mutual rapport to encourage students to open up. I encouraged sharing their experiences rather than suffer in silence. Music and sports were great conversation starters as was climate change. Injustice, inequalities in the world, and even Brexit got a few mentions.
Although we had a lot in common, I noticed an apparent difference between the mental health of students who practiced faith/spirituality and those who did not. My curiosity was aroused; was this a coincidence?

Does faith or spirituality play a role in the well-being of higher education students?

Spirituality, faith, religion, and atheism are words that tend to be inflammatory, uncomfortable, and sensitive. And often these words are not used in the same sentence. BUT, and this is a big, BUT I thought it was safe to tackle the elephant in the room. Amongst the students I interacted with, those who reported practicing some faith appeared to be more hopeful and optimistic. They also seemed to flourish more than the others. They said praying for each other, worshiping together, and studying the scriptures created a close support network. This that was positive for their wellbeing they said.

Then what?

This got me thinking, and so I put my researcher’s hat on. I smile and giggle a bit because I never thought I would say or write those words. Here I am in my new job as an MH Lecturer, and I can tell you that I never took off my researcher’s hat too. I ask students whether they believe there is something or a power bigger than them. Interestingly, those who identify as atheists have said: “Haha, that is an interesting question. I will need to think about that. Others say ‘I don’t know, you know’. On the other hand, students who practice spirituality/faith have mentioned that their belief in a deity or a power more prominent than them has helped them.  This power had helps them not be too harsh on themselves. And  also that life is like a jigsaw puzzle with small pieces being gradually assembled. The immense power that created them is responsible for putting these pieces in place. This power knows how the ending will be and always has good intentions for them.

The question is this; Is their Faith or Faithfulness buffering higher education students’ experiences against mental health challenges?

You see, Faith is outside of the self, while Faithfulness focuses on inside the self. Faithfulness calls for one to be reliable, consistent, or trustworthy. And it becomes a breeding ground for discipline and other positive traits. On the other hand, because Faith is concerned with an external force or object. It therefore becomes the question of how reliable and trustworthy that which they believe in is. ‘What is he going on about? I hear you ask. Well, for example, a student can totally believe in their lecturer and follow all the instructions they give them. This makes them disciplined and a good student (faithfulness). This does not mean that the lecturer (faith) made the student a good student but the student’s belief and respect for the lecturer. Likewise, it could be true that the lecturer (faith) is good and keeps reminding and prompting the student on how to be a good student. In other words, whether it is the student’s faithfulness to their faith or the power of their faith that gives them a buffer against mental health challenges, either way, the outcomes tend to be positive.

So what are you saying?

Here is what I know. It’s the same principle of LOVE that underpins most faiths, religions, and spiritual beliefs. Love, compassion, courage, and empathy when communicating with people. If you are a nurse and reading this, you would agree that these principles align with the 5C’s we use to uphold the profession.
Overall, interacting with students remains a privilege. And I hope that no matter what they believe in, I will continue to support them. I have learned that showing compassion and empathy can be as effective as other interventions. A simple act of noticing something new about a student and verbalizing it to them. For example, a “how are you today?” and actually listening to them without interruption. Sometimes they share something they know you can’t fix. But just listening can be therapeutic. Someone once said ‘Empathy is when someone falls into a ditch, and you hear them shouting; you get a ladder and climb down into the ditch to be with them.

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