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The shame behind the smile: depression at Wheaton

Behind practiced smiles, daily pleasantries and the “warm Wheaton welcomes,” many Wheaton students are depressed. During the first chapel of the semester, President Philip Ryken shared his struggles with depression, opening up the year with a vulnerability that students and Student Government hope to see continue on campus. The open house on depression this past Monday was an attempt to further aid those in the student body struggling with that prominent mental disorder.
Depression is a multifaceted disorder that is often referred to as the “common cold” of mental disorders. It is known to affect one in 10 adults at some point in their lives, according to Healthline. While sadness, grief and stress are feelings that everyone experiences from time to time, depression is a diagnosable chronic illness characterized by a depressed mood and impaired functioning. If the one to 10 ratio holds true in the Wheaton student body, at least 240 undergraduate students may be struggling with depression.
When asked about her feelings on struggling with depression at Wheaton, one student who wishes to remain anonymous said, “I know that depression is something that Christians deal with; I mean, look at Job and even Paul. But I can’t seem to shake the shame I feel. Christ is supposed to be my joy, and I feel like non-Christians will use that against my faith and other Christians will doubt my seriousness.”
This student is not alone in her line of thought. In fact, whether Christians can be depressed is a prominent discussion in both Christian and non-Christian communities.
EVP of Student Care Aly Vukelich expressed her concern, saying, “In my conversations with students who are facing or who have faced depression, it seems that they often hear that their depression is caused by a lack of faith or some other spiritual roadblock, such as sin. I personally feel like this is an incredibly poor way for Christians to handle the issue of depression. It shows a severe lack of care.”
Relevant Magazine also made an important point in acknowledging that “(Depression) is not a character defect, a spiritual disorder or an emotional dysfunction. And chief of all, it’s not a choice.” In fact, depression can be compared to a person who has been shot — one cannot ask the person to stop bleeding.
So why do some Christians become depressed? First, it is important to understand that depression is not chronic sadness, but can be due to the chemical makeup of the brain, or it may be a product of a situation.
In a college environment, and especially here at Wheaton, there are a myriad of biological, environmental and cognitive factors that correlate with depressive episodes or chronic depression. Some of the top stressors for college students include academic demands, lifestyle changes, time management, financial responsibilities, social isolation, sexual identity and preparation for life after college.
As more and more young adults attend college, on-campus counseling centers have seen an 8 percent increase in need. According to the American Psychological Association’s article, “Students Under Pressure,” roughly one-third of college students have had difficulty functioning within the past year due to depression, and 40 percent of those students named depression as the main reason for seeking counseling.
While specific statistics for Wheaton College were unavailable, Director of the Wheaton College Counseling Center, Toussaint Whetstone, stated that “Wheaton College’s trends regarding mental health concerns are very similar to those represented in this article.”
Another anonymous student who has been dealing with depression for years said, “It is a daily struggle that affects all aspects of life: academics, social interactions … especially motivation. It’s paralyzing.”
How then should Wheaton respond to the depression affecting approximately 10 to 30 percent of its community? Vukelich emphasized that the high standards and unspoken expectation of “composure” at Wheaton can cause many struggling students to live in fear and shame. She stated that her vision as EVP of Student Care is to promote a student body “more open to having conversations about depression and mental illness.”
However, Wheaton has also made “great strides” regarding support over the past year.
Lighthouse, a weekly community group of about a dozen students, is one of these “great strides.” Lighthouse co-chairs Sydney Walker and Jon Tsen said, “(Lighthouse is) not a therapy group, but a non-judgmental safe space for students to share their experiences with mental health. We seek to support the people that come to this group and live life alongside them.”
The Counseling Center, Lighthouse and Residence Life are always available as resources for students struggling with depression, and the Counseling Center can connect students with long term care and psychiatrists. As Ryken noted in his first chapel this semester, trustworthy friends and community are also a crucial support. The title of Monday’s open house echoes these resources by reassuring that students with depression that they are “not alone.”

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