Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Although I had spent the last 10 years distancing myself from religion, I felt compelled to attend Bible study with my friend one lonely Friday night. I came in dwelling over my mistakes from the past week, replaying my cringeworthy answers to a job interview in my head; I left feeling like my shame had disappeared. The pastor shared deeply personal experiences as others in the room shut their eyes, nodding passionately, heads held low. The emotional intensity weighed on me like a warm blanket from my childhood.
I can’t remember the last time I had seen such an open embrace of all the experiences that made us strange, unpleasant, and flawed. We reclaimed our loss and pain as the pastor told us, you are loved; Christian or not, you are loved. It felt so jarring to walk back out into the blistering Philly cold, where I had to pretend again that I was uber-normal, happy, and successful — the Penn Face trifecta.
Amidst our rising awareness of mental health, spirituality plays a relevant role. Unfortunately, the politicization of religion has made it hard for progressive college students, including me, to acknowledge its emotional benefits: More Americans ages 18-29 do not believe in a God compared to any other age group, according to the Pew Research Center. But if we celebrate the diversity of religious practices and focus on constructive spirituality, we may not only improve our mental health but also act as better support systems for others.
Due to my elementary schooling, I grew up with a very different doctrine of Christianity than what I experienced that Friday night. I had fear ingrained in me, impulsively punishing myself when I overindulged food or didn’t reach my academic goals. I associated religion with anxiety, and after learning about right-wing Evangelicals and conversion therapy, I resolved to disassociate myself from it. I did not expect these views to be challenged when I came to such a liberal college like Penn.
I first rethought my views because I realized that various religions preach an underlying message of self-love and acceptance. Although religious institutions sometimes gloss over these messages, they became my lifeline as my mental health worsened.
The need for a savior often stems from our feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. Once I learned that I could not control everything in my life, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders as I stopped blaming myself for whatever went wrong. At my lowest, it felt comforting to know that even if nobody in the world accepted or loved me, some omnipotent force would. This is what I was willing to believe for catharsis, for a quiet moment to breathe.
In the context of mental health, searching for absolute proof of God misses the point. Once I started to view spirituality as a coping mechanism rather than an all-or-nothing truth, the reality of a God no longer mattered to me if it eased the pain.
The second reason I reconsidered religion is because it offers an alternative value system that challenges competitive Ivy culture, in which students worship superficial measures of success above all else. The Four Truths of Buddhism urge us to transcend materialism; prophet Muhammad was so humble that he did not want to be idolized; Jesus stood up for the sick, poor, and widowed. In elite college environments that reward us for getting smarter, fitter, richer, and winning while never losing, what are we implying about those who miss the mark? Those who break down in the face of unbearable hardship?
I hope one day, it will be the norm for Ivy students to drop everything for a struggling peer rather than judge them for falling behind. Until then, countless belief systems including Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism could serve as guidelines for compassion. While we may reject some outdated aspects of religion, we don’t need to abandon the social truths that come along with it.
My message is not to invalidate the pain and trauma that have stemmed from organized religion. My heart goes out to the LGBTQ+ people, sexually expressive women, and non-Christians who have felt ostracized and torn apart by America’s dominant religious communities, and to the victims of hypocrites who've abused their power under the veil of faith. I admire your strength, and I recognize that my privileges allow me to positively receive religion in a way that you no longer can.
However, the rest of us don’t have to be afraid of selecting constructive messages that help us feel and act like better people. Experiment with spirituality, not necessarily as an an absolute, but as a resource. It could be just one of the steps you take to reflect on your pain and emerge resilient.
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