There is a significant rise in mental health problems among emerging young adults. This short story is a glimpse into what this might look like on our Christian college campuses. (All characters are fictional.)
It was the third snooze. She was going to be late. Again. She didn’t care. But she cared that she didn’t care. Why didn’t she care anymore? In high school she kept a tight schedule, up early for AP History, at school late for practice. Home to study, eat, and talk with her parents. Back to bed to do it all over again. She had been disciplined. She cared. She cared a lot—about grades, sports, friends, church. But now?
Megan took a deep breath and willed herself to sit up. She felt the tears welling up before her feet hit the floor. What was wrong with her? She had never felt this … sad? Tired?
Her roommate was in the shower. Esther’s bible was open on her desk. Megan felt even worse. She used to read Scripture. She used to pray. A tear made its way down her cheek. She brushed it away and pulled on some yoga pants that had been on the floor, a big sweatshirt and a baseball cap. She left the room before Esther even knew she was up.
Esther came out of the bathroom quietly. She glanced at the bunk and was surprised to see it empty. Megan hadn’t told her that anything was wrong, but her desk was messy, her bed was never made, and she spent a lot of time sleeping. This was not the girl who had moved in back in August. Esther and Megan had laughed and pasted glow-in-the-dark stars on their ceiling as they sang along to Beyoncé.
As she remembered their first few days together, Esther grew concerned. Megan was avoiding her, avoiding class—avoiding any group events at all. Esther wanted to honor Megan’s privacy, but she was beginning to think she should talk to someone.
• • •
Esther slung her backpack into a booth and set down her plate. She slid in and, just as she did, her resident assistant, Rachel, slid in across from her.
“May I eat with you?”
Rachel grabbed the ketchup for her fries and asked, “What was the best thing that happened to you today?” Esther thought through her day.
“Oh!” she said.
“That good?” Rachel said.
“No, it’s not that. I remembered what I needed to talk with you about.”
“Um. I’m worried about Megan.”
“Megan your roommate?” There were three Megans on the floor.
“She’s … not going to class. She seems … tired? But more than tired?” Esther suddenly felt uncertain about sharing. “I don’t mean to tattle.”
“It’s not tattling,” Rachel said. “You’re concerned. She’s skipping class. Is she eating?”
“I think so, just not with people.”
“Is she sleeping a lot?”
“All the time.”
Rachel nodded. Esther watched her, wondering what she was thinking. Should she have told her?
“I’m glad you told me. Let me see what I can do.”
• • •
Rachel spotted Megan walking back to the dorm from the dining hall and fell in step next to her. She commented on the weather and then asked, “Are you and Esther getting along?”
“Oh, yes. She’s great.”
“Good. She really likes you, too.” Rachel was glad to see the hint of a smile when she said this. She took a breath and continued. “I think she’s worried about you.”
Megan dropped the smile. “Why?”
“Why do you think?”
“I’m not ...” Megan stopped walking.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t want to talk about it.”
They started walking again.
Rachel spoke gently.
“I understand that you don’t want to talk about it. That’s fine. Sometimes it’s hard to put our feelings into words.”
They walked a few more steps in silence before Rachel said, “I had a hard season of depression my sophomore year. It was awful. I didn’t know what was going on. It is hard sometimes. And sometimes you don’t want to talk. But if you do,” Rachel stopped walking and looked at Megan, “I’m here. I’m going to text you tomorrow to check in, OK?”
Megan nodded and walked in to the dorm.
She went right into her room and climbed into bed fully dressed. She was embarrassed. She didn’t want anyone to worry about her. But she was worried about herself. The tears slid down her cheeks. She wiped her face on her pillow and fell asleep.
• • •
Her phone said 3:07 a.m. She lay in the dark, holding her phone. She wasn’t well. There was a part of her that was trying to tell her that, but she wasn’t listening, like when she started to sneeze but insisted she wasn’t catching a cold.
Megan had a moment of clarity: She needed help. This wasn’t going away on its own. She lifted her phone and squinted at it in the dark. She texted Rachel: “I need to talk. I need your help.” She dropped her hands to her side and fell asleep.
The response was there when Megan woke at 7:15 a.m.: “Of course. When?” Megan didn’t want to leave her bed, but she texted back, “Now?”
Moments later, there was a knock.
“Want to go to breakfast? Coffee?” Rachel was in sweats, so Megan knew she was good to go in the clothes she’d slept in. She texted Esther, “Out with Rachel.”
• • •
“I couldn’t believe how she just got it.” Megan was sitting across from Carl, one of the college’s counselors. She was telling him how she arrived at his door. “She was describing everything I was feeling. She said she got help, and it worked, so I’m here. Fix me.”
Carl laughed. “I appreciate your confidence in me. But it doesn’t work like that. We’ll see where this takes us, OK?”
• • •
Her bed was made. Esther noticed it right away when she entered their room. And her clothes were picked up. Megan was at her desk, chemistry book open.
“Hey! How are you?” Megan knew Esther’s question wasn’t merely polite.
Megan pulled out her the earbuds. “I’m OK.” Megan drew in a breath. “I’m not great, but I’m better.”
“Good, good,” said Esther. “I have been praying for you.”
“Thank you. Prayers, counseling, and maybe some medication will get me through this.”
“Medication?” Esther looked at her. “For your soul?”
“Well, for my brain, actually,” said Megan.
“Your brain? Isn’t it your heart that is sad?”
“Well, yes, but ...” Megan didn’t know how to answer.
“Won’t prayers and praying with your counselor be enough?”
“I don’t really pray with my counselor,” Megan was unsure of what to say. “We talk about my life and the pressure I put on myself and small steps to take each day.” That sounded so hollow compared to what the counseling sessions had actually been.
“Well, I will keep praying,” Esther said. “I prefer that to medicine.”
• • •
“Did you go on meds?” Megan didn’t even greet Rachel before she blurted out the question. Rachel finished filling her water bottle and turned to look at Megan.
“For your depression. Did you go on meds?”
“Um, yeah. They really helped.”
“What about prayer?”
Rachel laughed. “Oh, I prayed a LOT.”
“No, I mean, do you need meds if you have prayer? Esther seems to think prayer should be enough. I don’t know what to think.”
“Has anyone prescribed you meds?”
“No. I have an appointment with Dr. Schyler tomorrow.” Dr. Schyler was the contracted psychiatrist for the campus.
“Well, see what he says first.”
“Sure. But is depression a physical thing or more of a spiritual thing?”
Rachel slipped her water bottle into the side pocket of her backpack.
“It’s both. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Sure, I don’t have class till 2:30.”
“Let’s go to the coffee shop.”
• • •
The girls found a quiet booth in a back corner.
“So,” Megan began, “you said it’s both? Medical and spiritual?”
“Yeah. Your brain may not be producing the right chemicals in the right amounts at the right times, and meds can really help with that. That’s one way in which God heals us—through medicine and great doctors and counselors.”
Megan nodded. Her appointments with Carl had helped more than she thought they would. She’d also been going to a mindfulness group. She had rolled her eyes when Carl suggested it, but was surprised it was actually useful.
Rachel continued. “Illness can also be a time when we really doubt God, and the enemy can use our low feelings as an opportunity to mess with us.”
Rachel didn’t usually talk this way, so Megan leaned in.
“We get stuck in our thoughts and feelings, and the enemy tells us things will never get better, or that God doesn’t care, or that prayer doesn’t work.”
“What I found is the meds raised my emotional bottom; when I got down, I didn’t get as down as I used to. I felt more stable, and that allowed me to really engage with the counseling, get on a better sleep schedule, and it helped me to hear the difference between the voice of God and the voice of the enemy.”
“Wow,” Megan said.
“I have to thank Pastor Brian. He really helped me pull apart the physical and the spiritual and see how one influenced the other. He said having depression or anxiety doesn’t mean your faith is weak. God invites us to trust him and not worry, but God also knows how our brains work. He knows the sorrows of our hearts.”
Megan hadn’t thought about seeing one of the college chaplains, but it made a lot of sense.
“So Esther is right, and your psychiatrist will be right. You do need to keep praying, and your doctor may put you on medication. You need both. At least, I sure did.”
Rachel watched Megan take this all in.
“You know Roberto?”
Roberto was the RA of their brother floor. He was a pole vaulter, spoke three languages fluently, and sang on a worship team. He was one of those people who did everything and did it well.
“Roberto is on medication.”
“What?!” Megan was stunned. “Why?”
“He had a really bad first year. Culture shock, classes, trying to stay eligible for track. He started having panic attacks.”
Megan’s eyes widened. “Roberto?”
“Yes. In our early RA meetings, he was very transparent about all of it, and said we could use his story to help people. He would wake up in the middle of the night not able to breathe, or he would go to the gym and be afraid to vault. Things he used to do without thinking became impossible. He was really scared.”
“So, he did all the things you’re doing—counseling, meds, and he quit a few activities. He only sings on the worship team in the fall, so he has time for track in the spring. He dropped his double major. He stopped trying to be all things to all people. And he taught us to choose people over screens.”
“People over screens?”
“Yeah, one of the things we’ll do when we are stressed is pick up our phones and start scrolling. But studies show that actually makes us feel worse. What helps is to be with people. Roberto challenged us to use our phones as tools, not as comforts. We made a pact as an RA staff to choose people over screens. There’s actually a sociologist who says one reason for all of our mental health issues is because of screens and our overstimulated brains”.
Megan looked at her friend suspiciously. Rachel laughed.
“Yeah, I wrote a paper on it.”
They both laughed.
“So,” Megan said, “meds, prayer, counseling, people over screens.”
“Absolutely. Plus exercise and sleep are vital. Sleep six hours every night, preferably seven or eight. Chantal has all of us keep a sleep diary. She doesn’t want us sick because we aren’t getting enough sleep.” Chantal was the resident director.
“I had no idea.”
“You had no idea you needed that much sleep, or that Chantal made us keep sleep diaries?”
“Yeah. I also sleep with my phone in the bathroom. Only if I’m on call do I have my phone on and near my bed.”
Megan thought about how often she fell asleep holding her phone.
It was time for class.
“This has been so helpful. Thank you.”
“No problem! Let me know how it goes with Dr. Schyler.”
• • •
Megan shoved her phone into her backpack and headed to class. She walked into the room, sat down, and began to make a list:
“Make appt w/ Pastor Brian.”
“Ask Chantal about sleep diaries?”
“Talk with Esther about praying together.”
Megan took in a deep breath and let it out, just as she had learned in her mindfulness class. “Help me,” she prayed. “Help me to hear you and not the voice of the enemy.”
The professor walked in. Megan pulled out her books. And for the first time in a long time, she felt hope.
- How would you recognize if someone, especially a young person, is facing depression or a mental health issue? What are some of the signs?
- How can we help someone going through depression without them feeling they are being judged?
- Discuss further how depression can be both a spiritual and physical matter.
- How do we encourage our churches to foster a culture where people are not stigmatized for having depression or mental illness but feel supported and encouraged to heal?
Get All the Updates!
Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Editorial: Speak Out Against Racism
- The 2020 Ministerial Candidates are the Most Diverse Yet
- In Case You Missed It: Get all the news from the synod that didn’t happen
- Book Review: On the Road With St. Augustine
Read entire current print issue »