A More Mentally Healthy Campus | Connecting with Culture
It seems to be more normal than ever to read headlines about the state of the nation’s mental health. No one would complain that the tide of stigma is receding. But the changing tide also brings an expanse of complaints, scapegoats, and unanswered questions into the open.
This week, minister Norman Lamb spoke out about the scale of the mental health crisis in higher education. Lamb went as far as to say that UK universities should be bound by law to meet the mental health needs of their students. Which is not quite blaming universities for a failure in their duty of care, but was close enough to make a BBC news headline.
But headlines like these are not so new. In 1893 The Churchman periodical reflected that ‘the existence of mental and nervous degeneration among a growing class of people, especially in large cities, is an obvious phenomenon… diseases of the mind are almost as numerous as the diseases of the body’.
Media scaremongering aside, poor mental health can be an excruciatingly real problem for students at universities in the here and now. Is there hope for more mentally healthy campuses? Can we push back against this cultural contagion?
In the 1990s, a family therapist named Edwin Friedman began to explore these questions. He began coaching family members to become a ‘non-anxious presence’ in their networks: a presence who is connected to, but differentiated from, the sufferer. More recently, Esther Rantzen has championed grandparents for the same reasons.
Alas, prescription grandparents are unlikely to be rolled out across universities anytime soon. But the idea of a ‘non-anxious presence’ among us is worth further reflection.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells the members of the church to ‘not be anxious about anything’. But far from being an anxiety-inducing religious requirement, this command flows directly from an essential preceding truth: ‘the Lord is near’.
Christians believe in a supreme Non-Anxious Presence – a God who is intimately connected to us, but differentiated from us. While we persevere in the midst of our anguish, we trust in a God who promises to be present with us ‘to the very end of the age’.
A more mentally healthy campus would be a place in which students have access to a non-anxious presence like that. That would truly be a good news story worthy of the headlines.
Tim Yearsley leads a student ministry for the Navigators in Nottingham and occasionally tweets @convocafeuk.