The Wesley Foundation Helps Students Choose Life
By: Sherri Gragg
Last January, the Rev. Greg Oberg, Sam Houston University Wesley Foundation pastor, had a graduating senior stop by his office in search of some advice.
To whom should she give her cats so that they would not starve when she committed suicide?
The student’s struggle with clinical depression had been a long one. So long, in fact, that the suicide hotline counselors knew her by name. And on this winter’s day, when then university counseling center was closed and her future lay shrouded in despair, she turned to Oberg.
“I prayed with her,” Oberg said, “I reminded her that God loves her immensely and was going to heal her, but it was going to be a long journey. Then I encouraged her to celebrate the milestones on the journey.”
The Front Lines
According to Oberg, suicide is a major concern on college campuses, and one that is intensifying. The most recent statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) back up his experience in campus ministry. According to the AFSP, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Texans between the ages of 15 – 34 years old. Over all, one person in the state dies by his or her own hand every three hours. Nation-wide, for every person who commits suicide, 25 others have attempted and failed.
Campus ministries like the Wesley Foundation are on the front lines in caring for young men and women in what a recent article from Forbes magazine termed “a global epidemic” (“Suicide Isn’t a U.S. Problem. It’s a Global Health Epidemic,” Nicole Fisher, June 15, 2018, Forbes).
The Rev. Max Mertz, Wesley Foundation pastor for Texas A&M College Station, has personally lost three students to suicide in the past 30 years of ministry. Like Oberg, he has witnessed a disturbing trend toward students choosing suicide as a permanent solution to the problems they face. “It seems difficult for students to see that some problems are temporary,” Mertz said.
His experience with Texas A&M students mirrors a 2015 New York Times article which points to students’ pursuit of perfectionism as part of the problem. He observes that students who were considered exceptional in high school struggle with their sense of self-worth on campuses where so many of their classmates are high-achieving. “They were at the top in high school,” said Mertz, “but then they get to college and find that it is almost impossible to get straight A’s.”
Oberg points to student’s increased dependence on technology as an exacerbating factor. “We are the most technologically connected generation in human history,” he said, “but we are also the most isolated and alone.” He further asserts that students’ desperate pursuit of affirmation within the context of social media leaves them increasingly isolated, depressed and lonely.
Searching for Solutions
This year, Texas A&M will provide two mental healthcare workshops for Mertz and his Wesley Foundation staff. The first will be for suicide prevention. The second is designed to empower the Wesley Foundation to better minister to students struggling with anxiety.
Meanwhile, Oberg and his staff at Sam Houston University are working tirelessly to ensure that mental health support is woven into the very fabric of their ministry in a holistic way. “We are not a fully sanctioned mental health facility or expect our leaders to treat people as such,” Oberg said, “Instead, we want to have a general ministry that takes their struggle into account with dignity and compassion.”
Oberg and Mertz agree that it is essential for ministries like theirs to form partnerships with mental healthcare providers for the moments when a loving and supportive Christian community is not enough. Both pastors have resources on campus and in their communities readily available to provide professional help.
“A pastor is the field medic,” Oberg said, “When it gets more serious, we need allies.”