Religion is Not a Monolith: Mental Health and Religious, Secular and Spiritual Identities

Reverend J. Cody Nielsen

September 21, 2016

In our modern culture, religion is often seen as an instigator of hatred and violence.  The incidents that continue to plague our world all in the name of religion cause undue harm to all.  Because of this, alongside other stigmas which are applied, religious and spiritual identities are often seen as things which should remain separate from higher education or at least many of the areas of campus we work in. But religion at its core is a deep expression of community that can in many cases be an agent of support for people across the world and on our campuses.  And with such communities come opportunities for engagement in ways we might never have thought possible. For the next several weeks, we’ll be blogging about how religion is not a monolith and how its intersections with several areas of the university can be of great benefit to our campus populations.  I hope you will journey with me as I explore these areas.

The idea that religion is non-monolithic often begins when we consider its impact with mental health.  Research in higher education has found that students who are religiously practicing during college have higher rates of retention, persistence, and overall satisfaction.  But they also have significantly lower rates of mental health concerns (Astin & Astin, 2011).  This overall sense of well-being is well documented and has been explored from several angles over the past decade.

While religious institutions on the surface may appear to have specific goals and aspirations of its students, many professionals are working to provide healthy communities for students to grow and change during the college experience.  These communities may be diverse, full of people who they would rarely encounter without the efforts or these religious leaders and organizations.  It is within the opportunities that students come to learn about themselves and others where they can find community and finding a place to be themselves. 

When mental health concerns occur, campus religious professionals are often some of the first to take notice, as their work involves knowing students throughout their entire college experience.  They can be the first line in helping refer students to professionals on campus who can help process and manage the needs of our students.  And religious professionals working in conjunction with administration can offer insights regarding the current stress levels of our student populations.

These things make religious, secular, and spiritual life on campus vital.  A recent article in Huffington post highlights some of the values that Chaplains and other religious professionals can offer to campus. (, accessed August 16, 2016)  The ability to find peace and have someone to talk with regarding things can allow students who are dealing with mental health concerns to have someone to confide in, which in turn will help our students to find the resources they need.  Whether religious or not, religion is not a monolith.  And mental health is one of the first places student affairs professionals may consider religious groups helpful in the efforts to support our students.

Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students' inner lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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