Walking with students through depression

This is not what I signed up for, Kelley thought. 24 years old and just two years in to serving InterVarsity USA students, Kelley felt disappointed, weary, disillusioned.

Being involved in the movement as a student leader had felt relatively straight-forward. She knew the routine: evangelistic events, weekly meetings, winter camps, summer missions. Repeat the same next year. But since joining the staff team it had been so different. Messy. Discouraging. Heavy. She’d lost count of the number of students she knew who were struggling with their mental health. Some were weighed down by a thick darkness. Some had eating disorders. Some were self-harming. Some were suicidal. What’s going on here, Lord?

Staff workers, not doctors

Kelley wasn’t an expert on mental health. But students that she loved were struggling, so she decided to look into it. Research, books and courses helped, but they didn’t make Kelley a trained counsellor or psychiatrist. Many of these students needed professional help – she knew that. Still, Kelley often found herself encountering students struggling in the difficult in-between zone: perhaps at the beginning of their mental health concerns, not yet sure if they needed or wanted help; perhaps on the 6-month waiting list to see university counsellors. Every situation was unique and required Kelley to be prayerfully discerning and observant, particularly in the early stages of their interaction:

Is this student struggling because of their circumstances? Is there an unseen issue that needs to be addressed? Is there a clinical element as well? Is it serious? Are they just having a bad day? Would it be sensible to seek professional help?

Though Kelley knew the responsibility for a diagnosis lay with the doctor, helping students understand themselves would enable them to get the help they needed more quickly.

The depths of sorrow

Month after month, Kelley encountered more and more students who were struggling. Then one day, the community woke up to the terrible news that one of their students had taken his life. They were devastated. Why, God? And yet even in the depths of their sorrow, God was at work. The students became more open to talking: I’ve felt like that too; I’m in the same place; I think I need help.

Generation Z

The high rates of mental health problems she encountered on campus got Kelley thinking: are we just more aware of mental health today, or are the number of cases increasing? And if so, why? What is it about this generation, often referred to as ‘generation z’, that perhaps is more prone to struggling in this way? She reflected:

“Human connection is so lacking. I think social media has a lot to do with it because it fosters a sense of false identity which leads to feelings of separation and isolation. And it’s also the case today, at least in many western countries, that everything is catered to meet your needs. You can have your own social media platforms, your own Spotify playlist, your own personalised Starbucks drink. This creates a bubble with you at the centre, a life that revolves around your needs.

And of course, that’s depressing! It’s not real and it’s not fulfilling. So people try to numb it by doing more on social media, or Netflix, or whatever they need to dull the pain of being alone and isolated.

There are also issues of identity. No-one’s asking ‘who is God?’ anymore. Everyone is asking ‘who am I?’ The self-help books tell you not to worry, just be yourself. But how can you be yourself when you don’t know who you are? And how can you know who you are when you don’t know Christ?”

Robin Worrall – Unsplash

Praying for the 44

Raising awareness and getting students talking was a good start. But Kelley longed to see breakthrough. She wrote down the names of all the people she knew personally who had depression. There were 44. Forty-four! Overwhelmed and sorrowful, Kelley stuck up the names on her wall in the shape of a cross.

Jesus, I’m putting these people on Your cross. Through Your blood, I pray for their healing and rescue. Please restore them to a place of hope.

Not long after that, Kelley started getting phone calls. The people she was praying for would ring her and tell her how God was working in their lives. I was in my car and suddenly felt a lightness, a hope, they’d report, not knowing she had been praying. For others, the healing came through getting the professional help they needed. Some found it through medication; others went to therapy and learned tools to manage their mental health. It wasn’t always a quick fix, but many of them experienced breakthroughs and healing over the course of a year and a half.

Today there are just nine names left on Kelley’s wall.

A holistic approach

Often the recovery of a student with mental health struggles will involve more than just prayer. But it will never be less. Kelley’s story shows how God used professional medical help along with the proactive ministry of staff and their persistent prayer to help and heal many students. As IFES movements face the reality of ministering to a generation particularly affected by mental health struggles, we must be ready to take this holistic approach as we walk with students through the darkness.

How to get support

If you’re a student struggling with your mental health, we’d encourage you to seek medical help from your university or doctor, or start by talking to your national movement or a trusted friend.

How Daniel is empowering students like Adam to plant new groups

Adam was a quiet freshman when staff worker Daniel first met him. Adam was from a different college without any student ministry, so he came along to IVCF Canada events at the University of Ottawa. After a year, Daniel had an idea. He asked Adam if he’d consider planting a new group at his own college.

The group started out small, but gradually grew until it had to split into two groups! Adam was left to run the first group and lead the weekly Bible studies on his own, while Daniel helped another student lead the second group. Adam reflects:

“As a leader I’ve had to grow quite a bit. I’m naturally a very quiet, introverted person but I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone and engage with the people who come along.”

Staff worker Daniel’s role of empowering students like Adam to lead is crucial in this pioneering work. Daniel recently attended the IFES Breaking New Ground gathering for young pioneers. He, and IFES movement staff across the world, need your prayers for wisdom and vision to build up student leaders in 2020.

  • Pray for the two new groups at Adam’s college to grow in numbers and maturity in the coming year. Pray for new leaders to be found.
  • In such a vast country, IVCF Canada staff are not able to be present in every university. They must raise up students to start and lead groups. Pray that they would be effective trainers and enablers.

Thanks for praying with us!

Listening, learning and serving Hawaii

Next week, students in Hawaii will be spending part of their spring break knee-deep in the rich soil of wetland taro patches. As part of their annual retreat, the students will spend a day helping in the fields in the beautiful Waipi’o Valley. Serving the local Hawaiian community and looking after the land are two of the values particularly important to InterVarsity USA’s native Hawaiian ministry.

As well as studying the Bible and listening to God’s Word, the group will spend time with the elders of the Hawaiian communities in Hilo, listening to them and learning about their past. Learning Hawaiian history helps the students embrace their identity as Hawaiians, while they grow in their faith as Christians. There is much pain in their history, yet also, in Christ, hope for restoration and healing.

The students want to help their friends see that you can be a Christian and be Hawaiian. They want to show that God cares about their culture, their communities and their land.

Join us in praying for them this week:

  • Pray that the students would be a blessing as they help in the fields and spend time with the local community.
  • Pray that the students would know how to live out their identity as Hawaiian Christians.
  • Pray that the ministry would grow this year as students experience the love of Christ.

Thanks for praying with us!

From Myanmar to Nebraska

Alee first met Sha K’ Paw on 20 June — World Refugee Day. He was one of the volunteers, helping out amidst the good-natured chaos of the face-painting, soccer tournament and fashion show. The annual event in Omaha, USA always attracted big crowds, and that year was no exception. Alee, an InterVarsity staff worker, had the responsibility of coordinating the team of volunteers.

They hadn’t had many high school student volunteers in the past, so the fact that these young people were volunteering stood out to her. She got talking to two of them — Sha and his friend, Sunkist — both Karen refugees from Myanmar. It turned out that they were planning on going to the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) that fall. Alee’s ears pricked up! She’d met Karen children before, but she’d never met Karen students going to college. They chatted away. And then she took a stab in the dark: “Are you two followers of Jesus?”

Sha K’ Paw

Sha K’ Paw was born in Myanmar, a country in South Asia marked by a long, devastating civil war. At the age of seven he moved to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he stayed for six years, without his parents. It was a simple life: every day Sha went to school, played with his friends and ate rice with mung bean soup. His dormitory was run by Christians who taught the children to read the Bible and pray every morning and evening.

by Dinis Bazgutdinov on Unsplash

At 12, Sha moved to the US with his aunt in search of a better life, and was suddenly plunged into a totally different world: the culture, the language, the people — everything was different. He writes:

“I had heard people tell stories about what ‘third countries’ (countries where the refugees settle) are like. I’d heard they have a lot of food, great education, freedom and opportunity. And when I got to the US, I found the stories were true: the country was full of great things. But there were struggles too. I no longer had to worry about my empty stomach, but I had to worry about eating too much. I no longer had to worry about war, but I couldn’t speak English, and I struggled with school and understanding the culture. I no longer had to live in fear, but I still worried about my future.

As a teenager, I looked back and I could see how God had led me safely through life. There had been moments in my life when I’d felt alone and abandoned — but God had been there with me. There had been moments when I’d wanted to quit — but God had strengthened me. Realising deeply how He had been a Father and Saviour to me all along, I accepted Him as my Lord and Saviour, without doubt or question. I was baptised on 5 March 2011, at the age of 15.”

An answer to prayer

As all staff workers know, meeting Christian high school students about to go to university is a golden opportunity. All you need to get is their number, and you can plug them straight into a fellowship group before they’ve even set foot on campus.

But Alee met Sha around the time that her InterVarsity staff team had been praying about reaching every corner of the campus. They’d been reflecting on the way that each person reached is connected to a network or people group. With those prayers in mind, Alee realised the opportunity in front of her. Release, not recruit. That was what InterVarsity student ministry was all about. These two young Christians could be added into an existing, thriving fellowship group at UNO. Or they could be empowered and equipped to start their own, reaching out to other Karen refugees. It was a no-brainer.


After meeting Alee at the World Refugee Day, Sha and a few of his friends were connected to the staff workers at UNO. They bonded over mookatah (Thai grill) and after arriving at UNO as freshers, started studying the Bible together. Sha and a few others were discipled, and it wasn’t long before they were leading the Bible studies themselves and telling their friends about Jesus: “My friends need to know that Jesus loves them; someone needs to help them know that, and I guess that person is me.”

Asian Christian Fellowship, UNO

The group grew, as more Karen students heard about the fellowship group and joined in. Sha reflects on that time of growth:

“I continued to grow little by little as I was learning and leading at the same time. A group of us also prayed about God’s mission on our campus and we saw growth over the past year. It was the investment of our staff workers in us that helped us grow, and of course the Holy Spirit who led us.”

God’s faithfulness for pilgrim people

Almost all of the Karen students are the first in their families to study in the US. Most, like Sha, grew up in refugee camps before moving to America. They arrived with little or no English. Their parents would have had even less. It was up to the children to help their parents adapt to the new culture, act as interpreters, go to the bank, read the mail. The pressures of being displaced are all-too familiar for these young people.

by Yoshua Giri on Unsplash

The group of around 25–30 refugee students at UNO have been studying the book of Exodus, learning from the story of God’s displaced people. Having seen the faithfulness of God in the Bible and in their own stories of suffering, the students want others to know Him too. Some of them have even started reaching out to other refugee communities around them. One student, Manger, said:

“I am encouraged by my experience as a former refugee and a first-generation college student. I experienced God’s love throughout my life and I want to share it with others. I want to see revival in my community — at church, at home and at school.”

It is amazing to see how a casual conversation at a community event a few years ago has grown into a thriving student ministry. But this story is as challenging as it is encouraging. Are we, like Alee, praying for opportunities to reach new corners of the campus? How many more unengaged networks could be reached this year if more of us adopted the release, not recruit mentality? Are we looking to share the faithfulness of God with those around us?

Repenting together and saying ‘yes’ to the call of Jesus

Matthew picked up his brick. Lit up above him was a huge sculpture depicting Babylon. But it wasn’t old Babylon – it was today’s Babylon. At the top of the sculpture were pictures of the comforts and luxuries of modern life – wealth, technology, fashion, food… Below them were pictures depicting the reality – the exploitation and enslavement of the many people in our world who pay the cost to make the luxury possible.

This was part of Urbana18 – a mission conference for students from the USA and Canada.

Engaging with the book of Revelation, 10,000 students were invited to take a brick to represent their own complicity in Babylon and commit to making choices that say ‘yes’ to Jesus. Each brick was printed with the words:

“Come out of Babylon, my people.” Revelation 18:4

This was just one of many ways students were asked to respond to the book of Revelation and step into mission during the week. Matthew commented:

“Hearing the stories of everyone being convicted to listen to and act on God’s callings has been so immensely encouraging. It’s made me think about how I can turn my faith from acknowledgement into repentance and action.”

Pray with us for students returning to their universities after attending Urbana.

  • Pray for courage to make decisions that say ‘yes’ to Jesus on their campuses.
  • Pray for many to respond to the call to mission – in their universities, workplaces and to the ends of the earth.
  • The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

See more from Urbana missions conference, including most of the plenary sessions at: urbana.org

Thanks for praying with us!

Meet two students committed to seeing a witness on their campus

Laura and Danae, students at the College of New Caledonia in Canada, could easily feel out of their depth. They have no local staff worker and few Christian students. But they’re committed to seeing a Christian witness established on their campus. That’s why this semester, as leaders of a new InterVarsity Canada group, they’ve been organising regular outreach events. The students they’ve met are turning out to be more open than they’d expected:

“We’ve had the privilege of getting to know a young Hindu student from India who started coming along to our Bible studies. One day, while we were reading a passage in Mark’s Gospel, I asked him: ‘Why are you here? What are you looking for from this group?’ He replied: ‘Truth. I’m trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

‘This was so encouraging to me. God is placing a discontent on the hearts of students here and giving them a hunger to discover the truth. We are so thankful we can be a part of this beautiful journey alongside our classmates.”

Join us this week in praying for God’s work on this campus:

  • Pray for Laura and Danae to continue leading the student group boldly and faithfully. Pray for new leaders to take over from them when they leave their university next year.
  • Pray for this Indian student and for other seekers to come to know Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  • They’ll be running a course for seekers in the new year. Pray that students would be interested to go along and that many would come to repentance and faith through it.

Thanks for praying with us!

From the classroom to the campus

Callum was a regular at church, even through his teenage years. He played the drums in the church youth band once a month, and in his final year of high school he was one of the leaders at the Friday night youth club. The younger boys looked up to him. Christian family, summer camps, youth group — he would be fine at university, no question.

But Callum wasn’t fine at university. He never really settled into a church — it was a bit of a walk from where he was living, and the morning service started at 9.30am (much too early after a night-out). He went along once or twice to the student fellowship group in the first semester, but they kept going on about evangelism and it made him feel uncomfortable. He never went totally off the rails, he just slowly drifted away. The change was so gradual, he hardly noticed it. Finals, football and a new girlfriend took up all his time. Four years later when he graduated and landed a good job in the city, it didn’t even cross his mind to find a church. He no longer called himself a Christian anyway.

The alarming reality

Callum’s story is based on the story of thousands of young people in Canada.

A survey carried out in 2011 showed that two out of three young adults (aged 18–34) who had been raised in the church in Canada, were no longer attending. The survey results shook the Christian community across the country. The drop-out rate was alarmingly high. Since then, InterVarsity Canada have been taking action to try to reverse the trend: three years ago they recruited staff to re-pioneer high schools work in a couple of its big cities. Their focus would be on getting the students into the Bible, encouraging them to think missionally and helping them to transition well into university.

by Justin Eisner on Unsplash

Laying the foundations

It was not going to be a quick or easy task. Once healthy and thriving, high schools ministry in Canada had declined in the 1990s and early 2000s, as schools became less open and various staff members left. They needed to start again from scratch.

In Toronto, Inter-Varsity staff spent a few years concentrating on building relationships and trust with local pastors and headteachers. When doors started to open up, they found that the familiar campus ministry model would need to be adapted for the high school context. For one thing, the students’ lunch breaks were short. They’d only have about 15 minutes for a Bible study, so the passages would have to be chosen carefully — a short parable or just a few verses. The staff were keen to equip the students with skills to handle the Bible faithfully on their own. So they taught the students how to ask simple questions of the passage: What could they observe? What did it mean? How could they apply it to their own lives? These were tools they could use in their personal Bible study times or in leading groups in the future.

42-week mission trip

Helping high school students develop a missional mindset was key. But how? Toronto staff had an idea. They knew that most students would be familiar with the concept of a short-term mission trip — one or two weeks in the summer serving overseas or downtown in the city. Staff decided to capitalise on that and launched the idea of a 42-week mission trip. The school campus was their mission field for every week they were at school. They encouraged the young people to team up, to pray, to survey and plan, to try something, and then to debrief together — just as they would do on a short-term mission trip. They asked the students to consider where they were already involved in school life — a sports team, a jazz band, a social action club — and then encouraged them to live and think missionally in those communities.

Slowly, the students started to get on board. The weekly lunchtime slots became evangelistic opportunities, while planning and prayer moved to the mornings or after school. 60–80 students came along to Christmas and Easter events, organised and led by the students themselves. One group of guys ran a ‘pop and prayer’ event, where they handed out free pop to teachers and students, and then offered to pray for them. One girl finished school and then decided to take a year out serving Inter-Varsity school Christian fellowships — she started leading a Bible study for Muslim students.

Developing Bible-based, mission-minded high school students was one thing; but would they stick at it when they transitioned to university?

by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Transition 101

To help give the high school students a fighting chance of transitioning well into university life, a new initiative was launched in Toronto this year: Transition 101. Different youth ministries teamed up to host an event at which Christian university students would come and meet high school students. There were seminars on a range of topics, including how to survive at university, apologetics, spiritual disciplines and mental health.

It was also an opportunity for the high schoolers to make connections with older students already there, students who could encourage them to keep the missional mindset as they started at university in a few months’ time. Research carried out in 2018 found that young adults going on to further education are four times more likely to connect with a Christian campus group or chaplaincy if someone from their home church tries to make a connection for them. Initiatives like Transition 101 will, God-willing, help reduce the drop-out rate.

by Timothy Choy on Unsplash

Hitting the ground running

There are already stories of students transitioning well. Noah is one of those. He’s just started university in Canada, having been involved in InterVarsity ministry in high school. He writes about his experience as a freshman so far:

“Having been part of a Christian group in high school, I was able to learn about on-campus ministry opportunities before getting to university. That made it easier to get involved once university started. I knew that I wanted my faith to continue to grow and my relationship with Jesus to deepen. Looking back on my first month of university, my main encouragement for future freshmen would be to get involved with on-campus ministry and find a church to call home as soon as possible, before the semester gets into full swing.”

InterVarsity Canada staff are praying that there will be more stories like Noah’s, of students arriving at university ready to hit the ground running. In such a vast country, staff-workers are spread thinly. If student ministry is going to flourish it’s essential to get Christian students on board as early as possible with the vision of reaching out on campus. Similarly, it’s important to invest in graduates as they transition into the working world, so that they, too, can hit the ground running in their workplaces, envisioned to live and speak for Jesus.

InterVarsity Canada President Nigel Pollock reflected:

“We are increasingly seeing that discipleship is a process from early teens to late 20s. Student ministry — and in particular being involved in leadership in a campus group — is a really significant opportunity for students to grow in a different environment which complements and adds to their local church experience. Mentoring students through the key transitions from high school to university and from university into work makes an enormous difference to the effectiveness of student ministry and the impact of the gospel in people’s lives.”

Only with continued investment in these critical transition stages might the trends be reversed. Pray with us that this might be so, in this generation.

The full survey reports can be found here: