College students, depression and how the church can help

Going to college can be an exciting, promising and fulfilling experience when one first starts the journey. It is full of great expectations and a yearning to achieve. But when family and friends are left behind, when pressures to perform both academically, athletically and socially start to cause self-doubt, the loneliness of college can be scary, debilitating and depressing.

For Generation Z, — defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1997 and 2012 who make up the majority of college students today — social media and the pressure to live up to curated “perfect lives” on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter only exacerbates the pressures of college life. With the ubiquity of cell phones and internet access, students can constantly compare themselves with others, going from one social media account to another in an endless parade.

The last several years have seen a surge in depression, loneliness and suicide in teenagers and young adults. On college campuses, counseling centers are seeing large numbers of students. In fact, suicide is now the second largest cause of death for young adults ages 15-19. Female students have especially been impacted disproportionately with depression.

This increase in the past several years has caused doctors, sociologists, psychiatrists and university officials to take note. Several books such as “iGen,” “The Coddling of the American Mind” and “Digital Minimalism” have sought to show the effects of social media pressure, “safe culture” relating to young adults, and digital distraction. These authors conclude that young adults are growing up more slowly, are lonelier and are less likely to cope with pressure. As the church, we need to take these issues seriously and proactively.

For Generation Z, social media and the pressure to live up to curated “perfect lives” on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter only exacerbates the pressures of college life.

Here are several ways to help students who are lonely, depressed or seeking community.

Be willing to provide professional help.
Christians are always to offer the gospel and wisdom of God on life for a variety of issues, but sometimes they need to refer people to professional counselors. Be sure to have a prepared plan to help students who need immediate and professional help. Most people can be helped by a listening ear and good advice. Sometimes much more is needed. Know trusted counselors to whom you can refer students. Train staff to look for signs of depression and self-harm.

Focus on one’s identity in Christ.
Create a series that explains the believer’s identity in Christ. As students compare themselves to an ever-changing yet self-centered milieu of empty attempts to find significance, they need to rest in the assurance of acceptance in Christ. As Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee O Lord.” They need to be grounded in the realization that they belong to God regardless of a culture that is moving away from God.

Count the cost of social media.
Have a study on Tony Reinke’s book “12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You” (or another book on the mental and relational cost of social media). Make sure to have students turn off their phones while they study the text and then finish out the night with a board game or other activity where participants have to interact with each other without a constant “buzz” from cell phones.

Point to the hope of the gospel.
Don’t assume students have rejected the gospel. As survey data shows, more and more people consider themselves “nones,” those who have no religious affiliation. This increase is especially true for Generation Z. However, many of these young adults have never really heard the gospel. With fewer of them attending church, they are in many ways blank slates religiously. Many of them are searching for meaning. Their lack of Christian knowledge can be an opening to explain the gospel to them for the first time. Take time for a conversation that shows respect for who they are and a willingness to listen.