Cover Story

Kim Mecca attended Catholic and nondenominational churches during her youth, but as she moved away from home for the first time and started college at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa., her once-devout faith began to weaken, and she questioned her beliefs.

Her struggle with religion shattered her self-confidence and ability to make social decisions, she recalls. She was exposed to a diverse college setting, which sometimes conflicted with the values and beliefs she was raised with.

"In addition, there are too many other things in the way--grades, finances, peers, professors," Mecca says. "Suddenly, there's no time for church, prayer, and the youth group you belonged to in high school is now all over the country."

Unsure if she could bring her religious doubts to therapy at her university counseling center--since she attended a Jesuit university--Mecca confronted this issue on her own.

Certainly, Mecca's struggle with spirituality during her college years is not uncommon. According to a recent survey of a sample of college students, nearly one-third of those seeking help from university counseling centers report experiencing some distress from religious or spiritual problems, and many, like Mecca, never even visit counseling centers for help in facing these problems. The survey results appear in October's Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 50, No. 4).

The study's authors--Jeffrey Hayes, PhD, associate professor of counseling psychology, and counseling psychology doctoral student Chad V. Johnson of Pennsylvania State University--documented the prevalence and predictors of religious and spiritual concerns among 5,472 college students from 39 universities, using a national archival data set.

While questioning their faith, students may find problems seep into other aspects of their lives, Hayes says. For example, researchers found that students with spiritual or religious concerns were nearly twice as likely as clients who did not have spiritual problems to be confused about their beliefs and values, 25 percent more likely to have sexual concerns, and 22 to 29 percent more likely to have problems related to relationships with peers.

The researchers found that students who struggle with religion and spirituality also tend to be homesick, suicidal, victims of sexual assault or distressed over a break-up. These events or feelings may lead people to question their existential sense of worth, especially when they feel no support from social networks, Hayes notes.

"Students who were raised going to church every Sunday suddenly find that nobody is waking them up Sunday morning [at college] to go to church, and that it's a decision they have to make themselves," Hayes says. Furthermore, students may hold differing religious beliefs from their roommates, friends or classmates, which also can lead to personal and social conflicts, he says.

To better assist students with such struggles, psychologists on university campuses need to acknowledge the coexistence of spiritual concerns and mental health problems and work to create open environments in which students can discuss their religious and spiritual concerns, Hayes urges.

What psychologists can do

Particularly alarming, Hayes says, is the fact that students who struggle with religion and who have experienced such problems as sexual assault, homesickness, suicidal thoughts, unwanted pregnancies or the death of a significant other are unlikely to seek help from university counseling centers. The stigma associated with these feelings or events may trigger guilt or shame that dissuades them from seeking help, he explains.

Instead, students may turn to a pastor, rabbi or friend because they may believe that a mental health professional will misinterpret or minimize their religious beliefs, Hayes speculates.

Their concerns may be warranted. Psychologists tend to not be as religion-oriented in their personal lives as the general population, which might make some clients doubt if they will be receptive to discussing such issues in therapy, says William R. Miller, PhD, a distinguished psychology professor at the University of New Mexico who researches religious diversity. However, he adds, psychologists are becoming more open to addressing religion in training as a way to better serve their clients (see page 40)--as evidenced by an increase in psychology research and books on the topic.

To create an environment where students can feel comfortable sharing spiritual concerns in the university setting, psychologists can:

  • Discuss religion in therapy. Hayes recommends that mental health professionals tell their college clients from the outset that religion and spirituality are appropriate to discuss in therapy.

 

"If you don't ask, often clients won't initiate discussion of those topics because there is an uncertainty about how they will be received," Hayes says.

  • Make religion a part of campus outreach programs. For example, outreach programs on sexual assault should provide assurance to students that their values and spirituality will be respected and welcomed in discussions.

  • Collaborate with campus ministries or universities. To help students cope with spirituality concerns, psychologists who aren't trained in religious diversity may consider teaming with campus ministries and other such religious agencies to offer services, Miller suggests.

 

"We have not done a good job [training psychologists] for religious diversity," Miller says, noting that already qualified psychologists may wish to seek such training through continuing education. "This is a principal source of cultural differences too. In training psychologists, we need to promote more openness and attention to religious diversity."