Endless online meetings spent huddled around dark, over-familiar desk spaces became the sum of our experience. As the pandemic has worn on, students have become more and more burnt out.
In Brazil, this became a big problem. When state governments began to introduce restrictions in March 2020, along with much of the rest of the world, students were at first eager to engage online. They soon found, however, when remote classes became the order of the day, that they had no healthy routine. Universities struggled to put together schedules, which became chaotic and, in some cases, didn’t stop to give more than one week of holiday in the year.
ABUB, the student movement in Brazil, did a lot of creative work in those months to keep students engaged and functioning. By the end of 2020, students were tired, and mentally and emotionally many were struggling. They were fighting, nonetheless. When a vaccine was approved in January 2021, students were full of hope, expecting to go back to in-person life soon. As it turned out, the vaccine wasn’t available to students for eight long months. Many have now endured unbroken online study since March 2020. It’s difficult to keep going when life seems so difficult, and there’s no end in sight.
Student Mental Health and ABUB
ABUB has been engaging with student mental health in Brazil for a long time. In 1997, a university in Viçosa, Mina Gerais, found a high rate of depression and suicidal tendencies among its students. Students from ABUB and the Evangelical Centre of Missions organised the first Hope Week in 1998. Since then this event has occurred biannually and has spread to several other universities. Students organise workshops, talks, debates, and Bible studies. They use art to engage with topics like racism, sustainability, social responsibility, and politics – but with a primary focus on mental health and the hope of Christ. The event went ahead online in 2021.
Before the pandemic, ABUB students were also instrumental in helping their universities put together the official programs for the national annual suicide prevention campaign in Brazil, Yellow September. Staff worker Jessica reports that in 2019 contributing to this was one of the most popular student activities. Jessica points out that when all the ABUB students were surveyed in 2019 for the issues that were causing the most problems in their groups, ‘the great majority answered with depression and mental health.’
2021 research has found that 43% of students in Brazil thought about giving up their studies during the pandemic; 28% of male students and 40% of female students said their emotional state was ‘bad’ or ‘horrible’, 61% of young people aged 15-29 said that they suffer from anxiety, directly or indirectly because of the pandemic, 51% said they suffer from exhaustion, and 10% say the pandemic caused them to consider suicide.
Be still and know that I am God
By the beginning of 2021, staff were realising that the students really were burnt out. Not many groups had managed to renew their leadership in 2021, so many students had been in leadership for two years. They were feeling responsibility to stay in post, knowing that the pandemic had ensured that if they stepped down there would be no one to replace them. Whenever someone would muster an attempt to reinvigorate the student groups with a fresh initiative, explains Jessica, ‘every new idea sounded like a weight on their shoulders.’
Pablo, a staff worker in ABUB’s East region, decided that their approach needed to change. He began to think of an expression that he had heard at a workshop in the IFES Southern Cone sub-regional training, something to the effect that ‘a leader needs to lead people into the rhythm of life that God has established, and needs to know when to lead them to rest.’ They would forget about new activities – and not ask the students for more enthusiasm. Instead, they would meet the students where they were. Before the pandemic, the student group would sometimes use the lectio divina method of reading the Bible – an approach that emphasises slow contemplation, rumination and prayer over analysis and exegesis. Jessica explains that while the Catholic and monastic associations of lectio divina mean that many evangelical churches in Brazil don’t frame the concept in this way, she has found that students like it. Pablo explains that he uses the term ‘prayerful Bible reading’, which ‘explains more easily what we were proposing’.
Lectio divina was potentially a great answer– but how to repackage it for the pandemic? More online meetings and labour-intensive initiatives weren’t working, but Pablo and friend of ABUB Liz decided that to meet the moment they would produce lectio divina Bible studies as podcasts. Being able to listen in their own time, students could be given a tool to help them rest, refocus and be refreshed in Scripture. As Pablo puts it, ‘the main point was to allow a period of rest from online activities without giving up spiritual growth’ – and even that such a rest was essential to students’ spiritual growth. Jessica remembers that the first episode made her break down in tears. ‘I realised that I hadn’t been resting at all on God myself.’
Maria is a student who shares:
‘Last year, students’ hearts were all experiencing the same feeling of physical and mental exhaustion, dismay, and, even though we had all adapted to living online, there was always that feeling that something was missing. The podcast helped to bring reflections to the hearts who were really in need of rest. Students have said that it has really helped them. It gave us the perspective to remember that not everything is lost, but actually under God’s control.
‘After two years of remote classes, students can find hope by trusting that Jesus Christ is enough to help us continue walking on. Even if our eyes cannot see that. God continues to work in us. We have hope in using the skills God has given us to fulfil what he has called us to. The task of reaching every student for Jesus Christ needs to be fulfilled by those who are available, so may it be through us!’
Burnout, Mental Health and the Gospel
Mental health parallels physical health; one might have a chronic or severe mental health disorder just as one might have a chronic physical problem. Mental health problems can arise from specific life events, in the same way that accidents create physical injuries. And our physical health can fluctuate in all kinds of ways – often in relation to our lifestyle and environment. So too can mental health. Just as by not sleeping or eating enough you could exacerbate an existing health problem, create new ones, or simply start to feel unwell, mental health problems can arise when we are mentally and emotionally exhausted, lose perspective and become very stressed.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health not merely as an absence of mental disorder, but ‘a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’ Christians adjust this paradigm into what we know of the truths of Scripture – we don’t make seeking good mental health our gospel, nor do we over-spiritualise and neglect psychological and physiological factors. Many faithful and mature Christians still struggle with lifelong mental health issues. But as Christians we have additional resources to live with them. We have an ultimate security, an ultimate hope, an ultimate strength, and ultimate joy at our disposal. And when students burn out, from overworking, pandemics, or whatever else is thrown at them, leaving the new ideas and the initiatives behind and simply resting in what we already have in Christ is a powerful way to move forward and give God the glory.
The over-brimming, peaceful-flourishing maximum capacity of supreme mental health is waiting for us in glory. As hymnwriter Augustus Toplady wrote, the ‘glorified spirits in heaven’ are ‘more happy, but not more secure’ than those still in this world. Jessica concurs, pointing out that ‘when you have eternal hope, your focus changes. The question is, how can we put down roots into eternal life now?’
You can listen to ABUB’s (Portuguese) lectio divina podcasts here.