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On Vocation Blog

Posted February 19, 2019 by Center for Faith and Innovation
Tags: Vocation and Calling

(Un)Health and Vocation: A CFI Interview with the Student Care and Services Team

The Student Care and Services Team (SCST) serves as the central point of contact for proactive, responsive, coordinated care and support for all Wheaton students, encompassing emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, physical, and mental health concerns.

The Student Care and Services Team includes Carrie Williams, Interim Dean of Student Care and Services; Michelle Rose, Administrative Assistant to the Dean; Jennie Nicodem, Director of Learning and Accessibility Services; Dr. Toussaint Whetstone, Director of the Counseling Center; Beth Walsh, Interim Director of Student Health Services; and Raven Fisher, Student Care Assistant.

Ben Norquist, the CFI Managing Director, interviewed the Student Care and Services Team recently about the relationship between students’ health and their vocational formation.

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BN: I understand the Student Care and Services Team sees a spike in students seeking health services and other assistance in the winter. What are some of the issues our students struggle with during the winter?

SCST: We do see an influx of students seeking services at certain times of the year, especially in October/November and February/March when a lot of the challenges our students face are at their most intense. In October, the reality of how difficult classes will be starts to hit home, and some first-year students start to realize that they won’t perform as well academically as they’d thought. Some of these students also feel pressure from their families to perform well in school, which can add additional stress. On campus and off-campus dating relationships break up at a higher rate, and the difficulty of being away from home may become a challenge for some students. 

High stress levels underlie several medical issues common among our students. The number one medical issue we see in our clinic is gastritis, a reflux kind of issue that comes from overactive acid production. It arises when the nervous system responds to environmental stress. We see more cases of chest pain during finals. We also have a handful of students with stress related insomnia and excessive fatigue. Flu peaks among our students from December to March.

Wheaton College students also experience various mental health challenges. Anxiety and mood disorders, such as Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder, are among the most prevalent mental health concerns that students face.

Another dimension of student health challenges to highlight is what we call “co-morbidity,” the confluence of several issues at once. Issues can occur simultaneously and reinforce each other—academic distress, mental health challenges, medical issues, peer relationship problems, and family disintegration can all be part of this. If multiple concerns occur simultaneously, the ensuing stress can bring students to the point of dropping out of school or shutting down in other ways. 

BN: Our readers may be interested in connections between vocational development and health among our students. How do you see vocational preparation affecting our students’ health?

SCST: Anxiety attached to the vocational preparation process is prevalent, and not just at Wheaton. A few years ago, students were wondering, Am I in the right major?; but now it’s weightier—it’s, Will I succeed in life? They may have idealized vocational aspirations in mind, and the anxiety over whether they will achieve them can be acute; and if circumstances prevent them from success, they may fall into depression.

It’s important to empathize with students and validate their concerns, but we also want to help them take control of their circumstances, the parts they can do something about. We often refer students to the Center for Vocation and Career so they can start asking and answering some of the questions that are at the root of their anxiety.

Many of our students feel trapped by their circumstances and paralyzed to make critical decisions. We see this particularly at the end of each school year. Sometimes there are counter-pressures and the student doesn’t know how to resolve them. Parental pressure might be in one direction, personal interest in another direction, faculty or peer pressure in yet another. In these circumstances, students are particularly sensitive to the risk of making a decision.

We see these pressures especially in seniors. They come in for medical symptoms like chronic abdominal pain, but a lot of the time, the symptoms are rooted in fear of the future. They wear their stress in their stomachs. Additionally, women, students with disabilities, ethnic and racially diverse groups, and first-generation students regularly face unique hurdles.

BN: Let’s reverse the question now: How do the challenges you’ve described affect our students’ vocational development?

SCST: The challenges our students experience can provide an opportunity to deepen empathy for other people with similar experiences, teach our students to value differences, provide a context for deeper spiritual growth, and lead to a recognition of God’s work in the world in unique ways. These positive lessons can actually broaden the student’s perspective for what falls within the bounds of kingdom work, thus expanding their imagination for the future and their sense of purpose or calling. 

Another way these challenges can affect our students’ vocational formation has to do with values. Many of the challenges our students face have the power to call into question some of the cultural values that are often pursued in the church and our campus environment. For example, ideals like high levels of productivity, efficiency, certainty, independence, and individualism are commonly celebrated or held as the normative standard. But coming through mental or physical health challenges has the potential to inspire values for interdependence, empathy, and charity, which we take to be important vocational virtues in God’s kingdom.

Anxiety, which is the number one mental health issue we see in the Counseling Center, is a general fear of the future that impacts our students’ ability to function in various spheres, including their vocational preparation. We also treat many cases of depression, which entails a negative view of oneself, the world, and one’s future. Depression is associated with sadness, sleep disturbance, poor appetite, stress, weight loss or gain, and low energy, all of which may negatively affect a student’s process of vocational development.

BN: What should Wheaton employees know or do to best serve our students struggling with some of these challenges?

SCST: Share your human side. In class, in mentoring, and in other contexts where you interact with students, don’t just share your achievements—share your failures and fears as well. Students need to see that it’s okay to be honest about their struggles and to seek help. Create space for students to share their own stories as well. Students can feel anonymous, so invest in knowing them as individuals.

Be approachable and concerned about individuals—a lot of students don’t actually know how caring and understanding our professors and other employees are, and how flexible they’ll be with students who communicate with them. But before they’ll approach you, they need to think of you as empathetic and open.

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The Student Care and Services Team relies on employees to let them know about students who are struggling. Any employee who is aware of a student with a possible need is encouraged to use the Student Care Referral under the employee tab of the Wheaton Portal website. The referral is marked with an orange and white life preserver icon.