Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Mental Health Series during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Month. In case you missed them, here are the articles in the series so far:
- Mental Health is Raging on Our College Campuses – Are We Prepared to Deal With it?
- “Help, I’m suicidal”: How to Respond to Suicidal Ideation
- A Minister’s Experience Finding Help Through Professional Counseling
I have been involved in college ministry in some way for 25 years, and anxiety has always been a concern among college students. However, within the last few years, I think it has become even more prevalent. As we have said before, in June, the CDC reported that one in four 18-24-year-olds contemplated suicide in the month before the survey. The rates of anxiety are even higher; the pandemic has only skyrocketed the epidemic of mental health.
I have personally struggled with anxiety most of my life. I was diagnosed as a college student with generalized anxiety disorder, but I can remember having symptoms as a child. In a way, it has always been a part of who I am.
I used to view my anxiety disorder as a curse. I prayed many times for God to heal me and just take it away. The verses he impressed upon me were 2 Corinthians 12:9-10,
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
God has used my anxiety disorder to teach me to trust Him more and lean into His saving grace. I have grown to see God use my experience with anxiety as a way to minister to and encourage college students who also struggle with anxiety.
I have learned many things along the way, and my desire is to help you help college students too. Here are eight tips for helping students in their battle with anxiety.
Note: I am not a licensed therapist, and my suggestions should not replace any professional help that a student should need.
- Create a safe environment for them to express themselves. Even if you are not familiar with what an anxiety disorder feels like, make sure students know that you will not judge, shame or embarrass them.
- Listen actively if they want to talk about it. Try not to offer answers if they are just expressing how they feel. It’s normal for someone to experience anxiety without even knowing why they are anxious, so it is not your responsibility to figure out where it is coming from.
- Learn the basics of how to recognize and help someone through a panic attack. Panic attacks aren’t all the same, and they can be terrifying for the individual experiencing one. They might feel that they are unable to breathe or are experiencing a heart attack. Some people with panic attacks will be unable to physically move. Not all of them are this extreme though, so it is important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms. Some students will be helped by just receiving a hug, but for others this will cause the attack to be even worse. It’s important to know how to help each individual.
Note: panic attack symptoms can mimic symptoms of a heart attack and vice versa. Sometimes there is no way to differentiate the two without medical tests. If a student is reporting heart attack-like symptoms and there is any room for doubt, do not hesitate to take them to the emergency room or call 911.
- Help the student find a hobby where they are able to express themselves creatively or experience beauty. Some examples of hobbies that promote expression are painting, drawing, woodworking, crafting, jewelry making, sculpting, and photography. They don’t need to be expensive hobbies, and the emphasis is not on the quality of the outcome. It is meant to be a way to express emotion. Some of these hobbies will also allow the student to experience beauty, but other hobbies that will accomplish this are rock hunting, hiking, kayaking, leaf and flower collecting, watching sunsets and sunrises, star-gazing, and pretty much anything else you can do outside! Being outside and experiencing peaceful nature has the added bonus of relieving anxiety.
- Help the student come up with a list of Bible verses to memorize or keep close at hand. I suggest they type them into a note on their phone or write them on notecards and place them around their apartment, car, in notebooks or anywhere they will see them. Some verses I suggest are 1 Peter 5:7, Romans 8:38-39, Deuteronomy 31:8, and Psalm 27:13. Focusing on God’s love for me has been a great way to combat anxiety. This step combines the concepts of 2 Corinthians 10:5 and Romans 12:1-2. We take an active role in making sure our minds are focused on Christ and being transformed to his will.
- Understand your limits. You cannot heal your students. Your students might never be completely free from the clutches of anxiety, but you can help him/her develop a strategy of not being controlled by it. Please do not assume that your students are living a life of sin if they experience anxiety. There are many reasons anxiety exists. If they are actively working with a therapist, ask them about the strategies they have been discussing there as well.
- Help your students come up with a list of at least seven people they can call in case of an emergency. Anxiety can be extremely overwhelming and can cause irrational behavior. It is important for you to familiarize yourself with the signs of suicide ideation or intention. Never hesitate to call law enforcement, emergency services, or a mental health care professional if your student needs more help than you can offer. (Our post on how to help students with suicidal ideation is a great place to start equipping yourself for this scenario).
- Help your student develop a plan for them to actively participate in when anxiety hits. Have them write down the plan and keep it where they can look at it. When anxiety is strong, it can be difficult to think coherently. Having the plan written down in advance can prevent them from becoming immobilized or acting irrationally.
Above all, pray for your students. Anxiety can be such a difficult experience, and it is very real. Some do not have the support of their families, and they are very ashamed and embarrassed to have to ask for help. Be a light in their lives as you help them lean into the Lord’s strength to fight this battle.