Even those who don’t consider themselves “anxious people” have felt fear and worry around health, finances, politics, race, or some other life disruption. This is especially true of college students.
As a part of Redeeming Babel’s ongoing efforts to reach students experiencing anxiety, we offered our The Anxiety Opportunity Course to Houghton University as a paid pilot program. Later, we gathered the course leaders to chat about what they learned.
The conversation participants were:
Dr. Michael Jordan
Dean of the Chapel at Houghton College, author of “Healing Worship in an Age of Anxiety”
Chair of Religion, Associate Dean of the Chapel, Adjunct Professor of Youth Ministry
Executive Director of the Center for Student Success; Director of Counseling Services; Associate Professor of Psychology
Why is The Anxiety Opportunity Course needed based on your knowledge of what’s going on on college campuses today?
Burrichter: I’m the director of our Counseling Center here at the college. So both here as well as nationally, anxiety is the number one issue that college students are facing. So it’s relevant for us to have somebody that’s going to address that number one mental health issue of our local student population.
Jordan: I’ve taught spiritual formation at the college for a lot of years. We always try to integrate into my class two things: about mental health and spirituality. We really need a different stage of that discussion right now.
In my parents’ day, they were skeptical of mental health completely. Now there’s a lot greater awareness about mental health, and students come in able to talk about their mental health in really precise ways. However, they don’t always know how to integrate their face with that.
Mental health is one of their core convictions, but they don’t know how to integrate that with their faith.
Will you juxtapose the typical Christian response or church response anxiety versus the response that the Anxiety Opportunity Course took?
Jordan: This is obviously colored by my own perspective, but I think so many pastors grew up and were trained in times when mental health was really suspect and was more stigmatized. This stigma means they don’t really know how to deal with people who talk with a lot of clarity about their mental health.
There are some people who didn’t grow up in that era when it was stigmatized, but they also are really reluctant to do anything to start talking about the interior life that might unsettle someone’s equilibrium.
Someone might come to me and say, “I experienced these three things, these are medications I’m on, this is what I’m doing about it, this is how I remain stable, and this is how I remain functional in society.”
I think to myself, how does that integrate with this other core value – faith – at the center of your life? Yet I don’t want to be the one to upset their emotional stability by asking “have you thought about how this works with you?”
Curtis’s work seems to me like a brave step out, saying, we need to integrate these things and prompting people to think about what our anxiety might be telling us spiritually as well.
Most people go to their pastors, who don’t have much to say for one reason or another – either because they stigmatize anxiety or because they’re afraid of wading into those waters.
I’m always trying to suss out when someone comes to me: well, how does your prayer life interact with this?
But I know this sort of question is going to be received in 100 different ways for 100 different people, like. Some people are going to respond by saying, “don’t tell me to pray this away.” Even if that is not what I was saying. Others might say, “oh, I should pray more.” But I’m also not trying to make them feel guilty.
There’s so much that can go wrong when you start trying to integrate these things, and yet it’s so crucial.
That’s why it’s kind of nice to have a program that wasn’t something that we dreamed up to ask people to look at this integration.
Miller: I concur with everything that was said. Even if you have pastoral leadership right now that is getting more and more comfortable with mental health, anxiety sometimes lands in a slightly different category. People say, “well, yeah, we get mental health, but anxiety is antithetical to faith. Scripture tells us you exchange your anxiety for God’s peace.”
We’re sometimes suspicious of even baseline anxiety in the church. Curtis, being conscientious of that, takes the approach to say anxiety is actually normal, and you can experience growth through it rather than just avoiding it.
So for me, it was also narrowing in on the unique misconceptions within pop Christian culture on anxiety and the opportunity for growth through it rather than just avoiding it.
How does The Anxiety Opportunity Course integrate faith with science and counseling?
Burrichter: In the counseling center, we have a lot of students that come in thinking their anxiety is sin: their anxiety separates them from God, which I think it does.
But Curtis talks about how he is utilizing both science and theology to help inform our experience of anxiety, and that’s what integration is about, right? It’s about how do I take the lens of faith and the lens of science and let them both inform our experience in a way that still honors Scripture in a very real way.
My clients appreciated that. One of my clients actually purchased the curriculum on their own to go through it themselves and talked about that being a positive experience. I appreciate the integrated component to it as well, and it utilizes psychological science strategies and techniques which I think are helpful. So it’s not just about prayer. It’s not just about reading the Scripture.
I tell my clients, praying is good, praying is necessary.
But sometimes we need these tools, these practical strategies for how do I go and apply this?
Were there any downsides to The Anxiety Opportunity Course?
Burrichter: Everything was what I would want, with one downside. It was hard for us to get an hour of students’ time, and an hour wasn’t always enough. I could see this in other settings where maybe it’s a church based small group that is really used to a longer time together or sitting around a meal and processing. I don’t know about Mike and Bill, I had to make some adjustments just because we didn’t have time to do all of it and wanted to really narrow in. There were times where I felt like we could have gone further and we had to end, because we just didn’t have time. Getting an hour of undergraduates’ week is a big ask. If anything, the curriculum, each session is a little too full for our context, but I’d rather have more to pick from than trying to make up stuff for the hour.
Mike, J.L, and I each ran a section of this curriculum. I did it during Tuesdays at lunch. J.L. did it on Wednesday morning, and Mike did it on Monday evenings three different times.
I had the lunch group, which was tricky because we ate up time just with them going to get food and coming in. To some degree, we were all pretty similar in our approach, but we all have different personalities.
How did the students respond to the course and what types of students benefited the most?
Burrichter: After it was over, I realized we never did the pre-test/post-test data collection which I’d intended to do. If we do this again, my hope is we can do some kind of pre-test/post test so we can see their change over time. To me, that’s super important.
We don’t have quantitative data, but we have some qualitative data that suggests the students’ experiences were positive and well received.
Miller: Talking about anxiety is really tricky because everybody talks about being anxious but some people experience a clinical level of anxiety.
Students who didn’t rise to the clinical level may have felt like this isn’t really for me. When in actuality, it may have really been good for them to sit in and reflect on that more.
I found it really helpful as someone who’s never thought of myself as anxious in processing my feelings out loud, learning that I can make decisions consistent with my values even when I’m not feeling in a certain kind of way. That was really helpful.
Burrichter: A lot of students who took this course weren’t clients of the counseling center. A few might have been, but in many cases they weren’t students that were frequented in our office.
I’m not saying their anxiety was casual, but it didn’t rise to the level for which they sought clinical support.
So The Anxiety Opportunity Course touched a sector of our campus that we might not have touched otherwise.
Jordan: My group did have more students who would’ve been in your office. I’m glad to know you had that experience because it helps me to know that it got out a little more widely.
Miller: No one in my group talked about being in other types of counseling. And usually students are actually pretty open about admitting that and sharing it, which is a great thing.
One category I think it does help are the people who don’t have any other resources for dealing with anxiety. In other words, the people who haven’t yet hit the point where they seek out counseling but don’t like feeling anxious.
I had one young woman in the group who was just a kind of type A professional with her academics, and she just regularly gets paralyzed by anxiety while tackling her “to do” list.
“I know I’m anxious because I can’t get to my to do list,” she said, “And then it keeps me from getting to my to do list. I just get stuck.”
Her grades are great, she’s doing fine. She’s found her coping mechanism, but she knew that she needed some additional help. For whatever reason, she had not yet gone to the counseling center.
Bill can give you the specific stats, but more than a quarter of our student population goes to the counseling office. So it’s not that odd for a student to go, but every week she came back and said, “I put this advice from last week to use.” I think students who didn’t have other resources to dig themselves out of some of the anxiety pit.
My group was mostly people who gave no recognition to any other outside support dealing with their anxiety.
Why is this course needed when people can just go to the church for advice?
Jordan: Sometimes pastors just don’t have much to say about it. Or, they simply say to “be anxious for nothing,” which clearly means don’t experience these feelings. I like how the anxiety course helpfully moves away from pathologizing the anxious feelings but in a way which also gives people a hook to understand how their faith has a connection with anxiety. If the course were just one or the other, it wouldn’t have been as helpful.
It’s one thing to say your pastor is absurd when they say “be anxious for nothing.” But then the question is, then what does Jesus really say and how does he model it? That’s, to me, the real genius of the program.
Miller: There’s one thing that made the course unique from my perspective I’d like to point out. Some curriculum teachers focus heavily on the kind of personal, vulnerable story. Some will try to dig deep into the scripture, theology, or thinking about Christian life. Some will be heavy in the Christianizing of psychological practice.
Curtis found that sweet spot where he brought all of these together. Curtis came across as human, he shared his own stories that were relatable, and it wasn’t just a talking head saying “you shouldn’t be anxious,” like a parent telling the kids to eat their vegetables.
I felt like it was theologically and Biblically robust enough for our students at a Christian undergrad institution. By the time students are sophomores, they know so much Bible and Christian theology. In other words, they’ve grown beyond some of the fluffier church resources.
Curtis seemed like he really knew his mental health and psychological research. Those things came together well. The Venn diagram overlapped into a really nice spot in the middle where I felt like it really latched on to help a lot of different listeners who thought Curtis was a really trusted resource throughout.
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