Those who work on a college campus know that the 4-6 years it takes to get a university degree can be incredibly stressful. Students now seem to enter school with more pressure than ever. Escalating tuition and inadequate financial resources mean increasing levels of debt. Students take extra jobs to earn money for expenses, leaving less time for co-curricular activities, leisure, and rest. Dysfunctional families mean increasing emotional turmoil at home. High unemployment for 20-24 year olds means fierce workforce competition and the heightened importance of academic performance. High drop-out rates for religious involvement mean fewer social and spiritual resources available to help. In short, the reality for most college students is increasing stress and decreasing resources to deal it. The result is physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and spiritual depletion.
When students seek help, they often reach out to whomever they know and trust – a friend, a teacher, a counselor, a campus minister. If the word gets out that you are a trusted and available source of assistance for those in need, your calendar will fill quickly. As a Campus Minister, I think that I could spend nearly 100% of my time counseling students if I were to choose to structure my work this way. But I am not a counselor. Most Campus Ministers are not counselors. Only a few have the training, credentials, and job description that makes counseling their primary function. If you are not one of them, here are a few general guideline that you should probably follow, and communicate to other Campus Ministers that you may supervise:
- Understand the difference between counseling and spiritual formation. Counselors seek to provide assistance to people with personal, social, psychological, or spiritual difficulties. Typically counselors operate with a license, a code of ethics, a clear understanding of the extent of services rendered, and full knowledge of the compensation required for such services. I am not a counselor. Spiritual formation (a.k.a discipleship) is my area of expertise, along with the biblical and theological training that is associated with it.
- Know your limits. Campus Ministers (and for that matter, pastors, youth ministers, etc.) are the shade-tree mechanics of the counseling world. If you need someone to change the oil or make minor repairs, then take your car there. But for a complicated cross-country road trip, the dealer has better training and diagnostic tools. Such is the case with counseling. A Campus Minister’s training in counseling is limited, so know your limits and when to refer to an expert.
- Avoid entering into long-term counseling situations with students. I typically meet with a student for counseling 1-2 times, then refer out for longer term needs. My purpose in these situations is to help set the theological context in which Christian counseling can be successful, and then to be another layer of support for a student who needs long-term care from someone else. And remember that if you are not a counselor, then you may incur certain legal risks if you attempt to deliver long-term counseling services.
- Avoid spending more than 25% of your work week counseling students. This is a rough gauge and will obviously vary from week to week, season to season, and context to context. October and April are usually more difficult months for students. June and January are easier. In urban settings, other resources will be readily available. In a rural setting, you may be the best option for most students. That said, if on average you spend more than 25% of your week counseling students, your are likely neglecting other important functions of your work. If you struggle to keep that rule of thumb, you probably need additional staff members or referral resources at your disposal.
- Develop a referral network. Know which counselors in your area specialize in the issues with which your students tend to struggle. Know which counselors work from a distinctively Christian perspective. Know both male and female counselors because students often prefer one or the other. Know which counselors work on a sliding scale. Know which counselors take insurance and file the claim themselves. Have an assistant or intern gather this information, along with phone numbers, and have it available to students.
- Help students overcome the stigma associate with counseling. Just as there is a stigma associated with mental illness, there is a stigma associated with counseling. I readily admit to students (and everyone else apparently) that I have a counselor – Trey Hill at Covenant Counseling – and I firmly believe that anyone in a caregiving profession should. My counselor is licensed (Notre Dame), highly trained in research based interventions, highly skilled, and highly experienced. My insurance pays 80% of the cost. The 20% that I pay is worth every penny. I talk about this openly to help reduce the awkwardness and to help students see that counseling is a legitimate and professional service.
- Identify financial resources for students who cannot afford counseling. Sometimes students simply do not have the money or they cannot file the insurance claim because they don’t want their parents to know they are getting counseling. Sometimes parents will not help because parents are the problem! In these situations, I try to identify some resources in my budget to help pay a portion of a student’s first visit or two to a counselor. I always ask the student to pay something so that he/she is invested in the process. I’ve occasionally asked counselors that I know to see a student for free in exchange for referrals later, and rarely have I been declined. Most counselors do what they do because they want to help.