Many of us teaching in higher education are entering the final lap of the academic year. Paper, exams, and grading are piling up and so many of us wonder how it will all get done in time. On my campus the stress is palpable. Over the past few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of students who are accessing our psychological and counseling services. My colleagues in that office are striving admirably but they are stretched beyond capacity. Students are struggling with everything from academic, athletic, interpersonal, and social stress to chronic mental health issues and severe acute crises. Research is underway to determine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of young people including the rates of suicidal ideation, plans, attempts, and deaths by suicide. Stress and forms of psychological distress that occur in our campus environments must also be set against the wider landscape of other social factors including racialized violence, gender-based violence, homophobia, economic inequality, food insecurity, school shootings, immigration policy enforcement, escalating international tensions that threaten war, and the increasingly bleak outlook for the planet.
According to the American Psychological Association, during the 2020-2021 academic year, “more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem” (drawing on the Health Minds Survey conducted at over 700 schools). The statistics reveal disproportionate suffering among LGBTQIA+ students and students of color. The World Health Organization has also highlighted improved mental health and reduction in worldwide suicide rates as a priority. Globally, over 700,000 people die by suicide each year and most of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries (home to the majority of young people in the world).
A recent editorial in America frames mental illness among young people as both psychological and spiritual in nature. The current crisis is due in part to pandemic isolation and the isolation paradoxically engendered by social media. The editors note the particular challenges faced by students of color and students who are not heterosexual (though they refrain from mentioning transgender youth who are particularly at risk) and highlight research suggesting that religiously affiliated young people “report higher levels of flourishing.” The editors summon faith communities to take up care for the mental health of young people as a work of mercy.
That the Church has a moral responsibility to respond to the suffering of people with mental illness, as it does respond to suffering caused by any illness, is clear. The Church can be a key player in reducing stigma. Catholic educational institutions can provide access to the resources that our students need including psychological and spiritual care. I have written repeatedly in this forum about the Church’s role in constructing and perpetuating the vulnerability of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC students. Colleagues who have long been accompanying these students, entering both the chaos and clarity of their lives, sometimes at risk to their livelihoods and psychological well-being, are betrayed when those entrusted with positions of power in educational institutions and in the Church claim the right to discriminate; promote homophobic, transphobic, and racist rhetoric; or buckle under ecclesial pressure rather than advocating forcefully for civil and human rights. At my home institution, inspired by an Ignatian charism, we have been called to share in the work of accompanying all of our students into a hope filled future, which is no small task. It becomes more difficult, and perhaps hypocritical, to ask young people to be hopeful when some Church leaders have shored up the political power of those who are banning books, favoring corporate greed over environmental sustainability, and restricting the rights of women, LGBTQIA+ persons, and people of color.
In addition to naming ecclesial complicity, what role can ethicists in the academy play on the journey to a hope-filled future in the midst of a mental health crisis that touches even our most privileged students and disproportionally impacts LGBTQIA+ students and students of color? While faculty are not personally responsible for mental illness or suicidal ideation, plans, or attempts experienced by particular students, faculty can join the common good/public health approach to prevention.
Faculty can be first responders. We can learn more about mental health first aid and QPR, or Question, Persuade, Refer. Like CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, QPR is a crisis intervention intended to prevent death by suicide. For it to be successful as a public health measure, it needs to be learned by a lot of people. Philosopher Elaine Scarry has written about CPR as a kind of deep thinking that comes from repeated practice and replication that requires the “willful instilling of deeply formed habits in advance of the catastrophe.” The very nature of CPR is repetitive: continuous compressions done by one, or ideally several people (CPR is exhausting), who may have no medical training, while they wait for additional help to arrive.
QPR–Question, Persuade, Refer–also requires practice and does not require counselling expertise. It requires instilling deeply formed habits in advance of catastrophe. The habits need to be cultivated simultaneously, but in my experience the habits of questioning and persuading are the most challenging. First, the question, or some version of it, that we need to be able to ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide or harming yourself?” It can be asked in a number of different ways, but should avoid phrasing that suggests a desired answer, for instance, “You aren’t going to do anything stupid, are you?” Like a fire drill, we need to practice forming the words in our minds and mouths. Say them out loud while you are driving alone in the car or looking in the morning mirror to brush your teeth. Persuading too takes practice. Can I ask you not to do anything until I get there so we can talk? … until I get some help? Are you willing to walk with me to the counselling center? …to talk with someone on a hotline? Then we need to have handy the resources on our campuses like the location, phone, email, and text information for the counselling center (pause here to bookmark your campus website). Like the good Samaritan, we can set out each day with what we need to encounter woundedness at the ready.
Faculty can examine the roles that academic culture and their personal participation in that culture play in this crisis. There is mounting evidence that some pedagogical practices further entrench white supremacy and patriarchy in ways the contribute to psychological burdens and also fail in the stated goal of learning. Plowing through more content than necessary, requiring high stakes assignments, operating from a deficit or fixed mindset, and using grading systems that shame are all pieces of the puzzle. An obligation to resist an “educational survival complex” grows the more power and security we enjoy.
If, as teachers of Christian ethics, we are to teach ethically, then we ought to be guided by the teaching and learning that we encounter in the gospels: a central message of love and liberation conveyed in ways that meet people where they are, that calls forth the whole truth of the learner’s life, that provides a port in the storm of confusion, violence, and death, and that is willing to be challenged and chastened by those who desire justice.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and/or is expressing thoughts of suicide, there are a number of resources available in the United States. Colleagues from the World Church, please add your local resources in the comments.
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Zara Abrams, “Student mental health is in crisis. Campuses are rethinking their approach,” APA Monitor on Psychology, October 1, 2022, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/10/mental-health-campus-care
“There’s a mental crisis among teens. The Catholic Church needs to respond.” America Magazine (editorial), April 20, 2023.
Maria Carasco, “Addressing the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Students,” Inside Higher Ed, October 25, 2021 (Accessed April 16, 2023).
Jessica Coblentz, Dust in the Blood: A Theology of Life with Depression (Liturgical Press, 2022) Dana Dillon, “The Vital Cell: Subsidiarity and a Family-Centered Approach to Accompanying Persons with Mental Illness” in Kohlhaas and Roche, eds. Human Families: Identities, Relationships, and Responsibilities, College Theology Society Annual Volume 66 (Orbis, 2020): 211-221).
Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Beacon, 2019).
“Mental Health First Aid.” https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/, n.d.
The National Institute of Mental Health, n.d., https://www.nimh.nih.gov/.
Mary M. Doyle Roche, “Dear Colleague,” CTEWC North American Forum, June 7, 2016.
— . “Dispatch and Appeal from a Colleague in Worcester, MA,” CTEWC North American Forum, May 28, 2019.
—. “Parents’ Rights, Politics, and Justice for Young People,” CTEWC North American Forum, April 1, 2022.
“Question, Persuade, Refer.” QPR Institute, https://qprinstitute.com/, n.d.
Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency, New York: Norton, 2011.
“Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus.” Jesuits.org, https://www.jesuits.global/uap/
“Mental Health,” World Health Organization, n.d., https://www.who.int/health-topics/mental-health#tab=tab_1
Yusen Zhai and Xue Du , “Trends and prevalence of suicide 2017–2021 and its association with COVID-19: Interrupted time series analysis of a national sample of college students in the United States,” (Psychiatry Res. 2022 Oct; 316: 114796. Published online 2022 Aug 14. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2022.114796, accessed April 18, 2023.
 See for example, “Trends and prevalence of suicide 2017–2021 and its association with COVID-19: Interrupted time series analysis of a national sample of college students in the United States,” by Yusen Zhai and Xue Du (Psychiatry Res. 2022 Oct; 316: 114796. Published online 2022 Aug 14. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2022.114796, accessed April 18, 2023).
 See for example, “Addressing the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Students,” by Maria Carasco, Inside Higher Ed, October 25, 2021 (Accessed April 16, 2023).
 Data can be found at the WHO website (accessed April 18, 2023).
 See for example, Jessica Coblentz, Dust in the Blood: A Theology of Life with Depression (Liturgical Press, 2022); Dana Dillon, “The Vital Cell: Subsidiarity and a Family-Centered Approach to Accompanying Persons with Mental Illness” in Kohlhaas and Roche, eds. Human Families: Identities, Relationships, and Responsibilities, College Theology Society Annual Volume 66 (Orbis, 2020): 211-221).
 Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency, New York: Norton, 2011, 18.
 I have found the research of Asao Inoue of Arizona State University particularly helpful. Links to his research and media can be found at https://search.asu.edu/profile/3341379 (Accessed April 16, 2023).
 See Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Beacon, 2019).