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Christian Union
August 23, 2016

Students Seek to Support Friends Who Are Struggling, Suffering

By Eileen Scott, Senior Writer

counseling-pennStudents involved with Christian Union's ministry at the University of Pennsylvania devoted a chunk of their summer to a reading group aimed at prepping them on the basics of peer counseling.

"We want our students to know that they can help their friends," said John Cunningham, a Christian Union ministry fellow at Penn. "There are more people struggling than they think."

In June, the students began reading Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love, a primer on peer counseling and specific mental health topics. As part of their efforts, the undergraduates held a series of online discussions to help them foster skills to walk alongside those who are hurting.

"It's exactly what students need to hear with its paradigm of 'we are needy/we are needed,'" said Justin Mills, Penn '05, Christian Union's ministry director at Penn.

The topic of burden sharing is especially timely at Penn, where the campus has been plagued by a string of suicides.

In April, students mourned the death of a junior who threw herself in front of a train, making her the tenth student at Penn to commit suicide in just three years.

Given the startling number of self-inflicted deaths among Penn students, undergraduates involved in Christian Union's ministry are bolstering their efforts to support one another and their classmates.

"They need to know that this truly is a life-and-death issue on campus," said Cunningham. "We want our students to be intentional with their friends."

Part of that approach comes with the recognition of some of the unhealthy or extreme dynamics permeating top universities and broader American institutions.

At Penn, "there's such a culture of performance and competitiveness," said Jack Hostager '19, co-leader of the ministry's outreach team. "What is the Christian way to think about what should be motivating us?"

In contrast, Christians are called to find peace by shifting from an achievement mentality to an identity rooted in validation from the Son of God, Hostager noted.

"Part of being a good Christian is being a good neighbor," he said. "It's important to be aware of the people around you, be in tune to their stress and anxiety, and always be willing to drop everything to be there for them."

In a related effort to expand student awareness of mental health issues beyond Penn's iconic campus, Hostager recently penned a column for The Daily Pennsylvanian reflecting his experiences working at an outpatient mental health facility in downtown Philadelphia.

"If we care so much about mental health here, then we ought to be just as passionate about it in the wider community in which we live," Hostager wrote for a column that appeared in late May. "Mental health issues do not only exist on this campus during the sliver of our lives that we spend at Penn."

Rather, 120,000-plus people have taken their lives in the United States during the last three years. "The people who suffer the most, suffer a lot in silence," said Hostager, who worked as a research assistant.

Along related lines, Christian Union's ministry at Penn devoted its final leadership lecture series of the year to probing the concept of Sabbath rest as part of an enhanced emphasis from student leaders in the ministry on mental health.

In April, Kevin Antlitz, a Christian Union ministry fellow at Princeton University, gave a lecture on principles behind the commandment found in Exodus 20 to keep the Sabbath as holy. Antlitz aims to set aside a day to rest from work-related activities.

The message resonated with students, including Hostager. "It's important to make sure you're taking time to recharge. That's what God wants us to do," he said. "Otherwise, something will give."

Not only are rest and adequate sleep interlinked with mental well-being, being intentional about honoring the Sabbath can send a powerful message to peers, Cunningham noted.

"Taking Sabbath at Penn is one of the best ways to exert a countercultural voice against the culture of pressure, achievement, and success that underlies a lot of the mental health struggle on campus," Cunningham said.

Likewise, Cunningham warned that obsession with success can come with dangerous consequences. "Failure is not a life-ruining category," said Cunningham. "Life is more than Penn. Life is more than your job and your internship."

Lasting success comes from maturing in Christ and following His callings and principles.

As such, students need to be diligent and focused in this chapter of their lives, but remember they are called to be "ambitious in a different place," a heavenly one, Cunningham said.