How Journey Counseling is helping those with mental-health challenges in Harrisonburg
Written by Brad Jenkins

Mental-health awareness has taken on increased importance in our nation in recent years, including at universities, such as JMU. The pandemic has only increased the need, and local and university counseling centers are often overwhelmed. In Harrisonburg, Journey Counseling is helping give those with mental-health challenges the support they need.

We asked Journey’s board chairman, Andrew Witmer, about Journey’s work in Harrisonburg, and specifically about the college mental-health crisis and how Journey is helping. Witmer is an associate professor of history at JMU, so he is well aware of the challenges students face.

What makes you most excited when it comes to Journey’s mission?

Journey’s commitment to partnering with the local church to help members of our community. This has been at the heart of our mission since our founding in 2008. We’ve been deliberate in recent years about responding to the urgent need for counseling among college students. Journey has a remarkably talented and close-knit team of counselors. They’re all clinically trained, and they’re all members of local churches. This allows Journey to come alongside churches in our area, offering clinical counseling that facilitates growth in accordance with biblical truth.

How can the church do a better job helping people with depression and anxiety?

The church should be a place where people can be honest about their hurts and struggles, and walk through these things with others. Sometimes that will involve seeking help from clinically trained counselors with knowledge and approaches that supplement pastoral care. I’m encouraged when I hear Christian leaders share about their own struggles, since it helps the rest of us push against the pressure to project the false image that we have it all together. I’m grateful that more people seem open to seeking help through counseling, and to talking about how they’ve grown through counseling.

What are some particular mental-health challenges you see in your work with students these days?

Students are dealing with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other challenges. Visits to JMU’s Counseling Center have spiked in recent years, in line with national trends. Sometimes students in my classes speak with me about their struggles. In many cases, though, I’m left wondering about what’s happening in the lives of students who simply stop attending class, turning in work, or answering emails.

How has the pandemic deepened some of the mental-health challenges you notice?

I’m speaking as a History professor rather than a mental-health expert, but I can say that the instability and isolation many of us have experienced over the past couple years have been keenly felt on college campuses. Students have lost experiences and opportunities that they expected to enjoy in college. For a while, classes were entirely online and people were spending a lot of time on their own. In addition to the pandemic, recent months have seen the death of two officers in a shooting on one area campus and two people taking their own lives on another campus. It’s a lot for students to process on top of everything else. Sarah DeBoer, Journey’s Clinical Director, tells me that she’s observed skyrocketing anxiety and increased depression symptoms in recent years. Back in January, JMU’s Vice President for Student Affairs told the student newspaper that he was “very, very worried about the mental health of our students.”

In what ways do you see students coping with these mental-health challenges?

Substance abuse and increased isolation are real problems, and can lead to more depression and anxiety. I’m grateful that more students are talking openly about mental-health challenges and seeking help, including through counseling. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult for students to find help. One recent article in JMU’s student newspaper described the overwhelming demand for services from the university’s Counseling Center, which simply can’t keep up. Students are often referred to off-campus therapists. Even if they’re able to make an appointment (this can be a challenge since demand for counseling has spiked throughout the community and many therapists aren’t taking new clients), they may not be able to pay for it. A JMU senior interviewed for the article noted that health insurance made it possible for her to afford off-campus help, “but I know a lot of students aren’t.”

How is Journey helping college students?

In three main ways. First, Journey’s counselors regularly work one-on-one with college students. Second, Journey offers financial assistance to students (and other clients) who can’t afford the full cost of counseling. We’re able to do this because friends and supporters contribute generously to our Client Assistance Fund. We’re so grateful for First Presbyterian Church’s support for this fund. Third, Journey’s counselors give talks for campus ministry groups and advise campus ministry leaders. I’ve heard from campus ministers who are deeply grateful to be able to refer students to a trusted partner like Journey.

In March, First Pres will be including Journey in the church’s monthly mission offering, which is split among global and local missions. The local missions portion in March goes to Journey, which provides financial assistance to clients who qualify. You can make a gift to that offering here.