Foundation awards $100,000 grant to address college mental health crisis
Grace Rogers says she feels fairly overwhelmed most of the time.
The 21-year-old Jacksonville native is entering the last leg of her interdisciplinary undergraduate studies at the University of North Florida, while also serving as a ministry fellow with Campus to City Wesley Foundation, the school’s United Methodist student ministry.
“I feel I could cry at any minute,” Rogers said. “You have to keep going because nothing ever stops. It feels worse than the usual chaos. I am so easily burned out.”
Rogers is grounded, self-directed and well connected to her faith community. At the same time, she says she is “a mess.”
“I’ve never been diagnosed with anything,” Rogers said. “It just feels really chaotic. But this is common with young people. Most of us recognize we pretty much all just know we’re struggling all the time. I see that a lot with my friends.”
Grace Rogers is nearing the end of her college career at the University of North Florida, while also serving as a student leader with the school’s United Methodist campus ministry and working at a restaurant. Add the challenges of a pandemic, and Rogers says she’s overwhelmed.
College, Rogers said, is an onslaught of new and different things — full-time classes, full-time work, leaving home, first-time responsibilities.
“The world is set up for typical people,” she said, “and if there’s any deviation, you struggle. Trying to navigate college at all is rough without mental health attached to it. There’s a lot of stress.”
Young adults in crisis
Recent surveys from the American College Health Association report nearly 60% of college students feel overwhelming anxiety and 40% report depression severe enough to affect daily functioning.
“Experts and researchers use terms like ‘epidemic’ and ‘crisis’ to characterize the mental health challenges currently facing American college students,” BestColleges.com reported in May.
And in a pre-pandemic article in February 2020, verywellmind.com reported the suicide rate among young adults ages 15-24 had tripled since the 1950s. Suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students.
Those statistics aren’t news to Derrick Scott, who works with college students as executive director of Campus to City Wesley Foundation.
“Before the pandemic I would have said I’d never seen the depth of anxiety and depression and personal instability that I am currently seeing,” Scott said. “(Students) are holding all of this, while still trying to make the best of this life. They’re trying to kill it at school and at work, and at the same time, holding so much mental un-health.”
The pandemic, he says, has made college life much harder.
“Now, students are online for everything,” Scott said. “There’s the overstimulation that comes with screen time. Plus, they can’t touch other people. We don’t know the full impact yet.”
Rogers knows how it has impacted her.
“Everything stopped … but it didn’t,” she said. “They didn’t stop classes. And I work in a restaurant — I have to go to work. People say they need everything to stop to have time to catch up and reorganize, to practice self-care. But it didn’t stop. Things became more difficult.”
And that overstimulation Scott referenced is no small matter. The International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction reported that “overall increased screen time is associated with negative outcomes, such as lowered self-esteem, increased incidence and severity of mental health issues and addictions, slowed learning and acquisition, and an increased risk of premature cognitive decline.”
The impact on students is also not news to Florida United Methodist Foundation board members.
“COVID has only served to exacerbate an already troubling trend,” said Phyllis Klock, a member of the foundation’s advancement and grants committee.
Klock also serves on the Florida Conference’s higher education and campus ministry board, where campus ministry leaders have shared the mental health challenges they’re seeing among young people.
One particular area of concern, Klock said, is the need for mental health professionals in college health services.
“Are a substantial number of students at risk? I believe they are, as well as not being able to live the fullest life God intends them to be living,” she said. “Anxiety and insecurity — it is real.”
The Rev. Mark Becker, the foundation’s president, agrees. He points to the NBC News series “Kids Under Pressure,” which featured college life during the pandemic.
“(They were) great students, then all of a sudden motivation dropped, there was the impact on self-image, and they can’t be with people,” he said. “Just from watching, I understand the need. Then talking with Derrick Scott confirmed what I already knew.”
A plan for a healthier future
After conversations with Heather Pancoast, co-director at the University of Florida’s Gator Wesley Foundation, and foundation staff, an idea to meet the growing need emerged.
Scott says it’s “focused and scalable with an eye on being generative and sustainable.”
And it will be provided by Studio Wesley, the online campus resource operated by Campus to City Wesley Foundation.
“We launched (Studio Wesley) in an effort to continue serving college-aged young adults — a generation of digital natives with varied schedules and rhythms,” Scott said. “Our effort was to create and curate on-demand content that would assist these individuals in their journey with Jesus Christ.”
The foundation awarded a $21,000 emerging ministries grant to the digital ministry in 2018, which gave staff and student leaders resources to “dream, test and iterate different ideas by focusing energy, devoting resources, and expanding our understanding of how to provide ministry in the digital world,” Scott said.
That groundwork made it possible for the team to pivot more easily to an online ministry when the pandemic forced campuses to close. Now, Studio Wesley is offering podcasts, blogs and social media content to students throughout the state.
It’s also the platform that will jumpstart the effort to deliver mental health resources to leaders and students.
“In partnership with the foundation, Studio Wesley will spend the next academic year focusing efforts on creating and curating on-demand, relevant content on the topic of mental health that will be available to college-aged young adults anywhere in the country through our website and social media platforms,” Scott said.
The pilot program will offer training and insights from mental health experts for student leaders from Florida’s 10 Wesley Foundations and two United Methodist-related college campuses, Bethune-Cookman University and Florida Southern College. Online small groups will help participants focus on their own mental health, but also equip them to support their peers.
The first stage begins in the fall, when three mental health modules led by a three-person guide team will be offered to student leaders. The first in September will be open to 12 from Campus to City Wesley Foundation. Two each from Bethune-Cookman, Florida Southern and the other nine campus ministries will participate in the second and third modules planned for October and November.
Each student will also have access to a $500 stipend intended for their own mental health treatment, including therapy sessions, spiritual direction or resources.
Scott says design team members will use feedback from participants and their experiences using the stipends to fine-tune as many as four mental health modules that will be offered to any college-aged young adult next spring. Those insights will also be used to develop two in-person events in January and June for college leaders, pastors and parents.
“The goal of these events,” Scott said, “is to open the conversation around mental health for those who lead and care for young adults. We will design a day of learning that may include hearing from mental health experts on best practices, the latest research and opportunities for attendees to learn more.”
The total estimated budget — to train student facilitators, develop materials, offer stipends, pay design team members and tech support — is $100,000.
“In many ways, the budget we are proposing is a lot of money,” Scott said. “In other ways, it is only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the enormity of the mental health crisis we are facing. We believe that by focusing the resources initially on training student leaders and gathering a team to consistently learn and improve these resources, we have the opportunity to make a difference.”
Partner in ministry
For the foundation, it all started with a question — how can the foundation be in ministry with young adults? Staff met with Scott and other campus ministry leaders and asked that question.
“This is what came from that,” Becker said. “Derrick explained where they were coming from, and we challenged him to think bigger.”
After submitting a rough idea for the initiative to the foundation’s advancement and grants committee, Scott met with Becker and Klock to further explain the vision.
“We wanted to know what we could possibly do, especially for those underrepresented students,” Klock said. “It kind of coalesced, and it’s a very exciting project that includes the opportunity to make an immediate difference and the built-in fluidity to lead to long-term interventions.”
The rest of the advancement and grants committee agreed and awarded the total requested.
“I want the foundation to have a lasting impact on young people,” Becker said. “The idea fell in our lap, and we decided to fully fund this.”
The money will come from donations to the foundation’s Future Generations Fund and funds budgeted annually for grants. As a result, no additional Future Generations Fund grants will be awarded this year.
Safe and welcome
Scott credits a miracle of prevenient grace with putting the pieces into place to reach students during the pandemic.
“We were just trying to provide a ministry that serves students well,” Scott said. “What do they need? And how do we provide it without destroying our budget? The first grant gave us the space to do the deeper work of thinking through all of that. Then COVID hit, and it became work that Jesus is leveraging. The structure and process were in place.”
And Rogers says campus ministry is a safe place to work through the issues students face.
“In CCW, we have the language to talk about what is bothering us,” she said. “At work, you can’t say, ‘I’m overwhelmed; I need to stop serving tables.’ But in CCW, it’s acceptable to talk about this. We ask, ‘How is your soul?’ It’s different from, ‘How are you?’ It cuts through that. It’s, ‘Hey, we are a group that is a place that can make people feel safe and welcome.’”
But there’s much more to be done, Scott says. Going forward, the team will be asking what leaders don’t know and how campus ministries can do more to address mental health needs.
“We want to invite students into the life of Jesus, and it’s my job to continue to cultivate space that addresses the multiple components of life in the direction of Jesus,” Scott said. “We must talk about all aspects of life and walk with people. The Holy Spirit is inviting us to join the work of moving people toward perfection.”