I am so honored and humbled to be a part of these proceedings today. Like so many others who questioned 'why me,' for feeling inadequate, slow of mouth, or to paraphrase one prophet who put it bluntly 'they don’t like me' examples of honoring the call are robust. These brave souls exemplified their faith and obedience when called, so I too can learn from and love that example. I am hoping that my reflections today are of value to our discourse towards fulfilling our university vision of building his kingdom in our quest for perfection, eternal life, and international peace.
I provide this slide as if an 'entrance ticket' to our shared learning today. I learn much from the blessing of being a dad to my kids and papa to my ten grandchildren. It is through these cherished blessings of stewardship I have gained much as an adult, a man, and even as a professor.
So many of my hopes and dreams are founded in this stewardship, as I am sure is the same for many in this room today. This perspective is fashioned by a loving principle of eternal life through Christ’s Atonement for all of us.
I am so thankful for such a plan that allows me to grow and learn and improve my faithful obedience to return to our Heavenly Father’s presence. One of my grandsons helped me to realize how these special souls are the evidence of my hope for eternal happiness. His example is one that guides me today to overcome those days of challenge, self-doubt, adversity, and anxiousness that many of us feel.
Consider in advance how this young man, my grandson Willie, could demonstrate the evidence we hope for by being persistently present for me. So many of us at this time, are looking for that substance of things hoped for. Our church leaders during our last general conference, encourage us to move forward in these tumultuous times as a pandemic with biblical proportions in a world of seeming chaos with political, environmental, and economic challenges.
While what I propose today for consideration is not new, it seems to fit a 'perfect storm' of chaos today. In these times, we can recognize how our faith-based leadership and what we in my discipline call an evidence-based practice are espousing similar and related approaches.
A blend of faith-based and evidence-based perspectives are emerging at this time to specifically address the chaos that is affecting our university campuses and students. I hope to describe how from our social work perspectives of micro, mezzo and macro approaches this blending should be considered. Willie, the youngest of my grandsons, offers a simple example for me of how a broad approach at the macro or global level can be applied for a significant impact at the micro or individual level.
Our latter-day spiritual leaders leaning on the gospel of Jesus Christ continue to provide guidance, instruction, and examples of faith-based strategies for dealing with adversity. Evidence-based practices from scholars of multiple disciplines are reflecting similar themes, constructs, and tactics to address the angst-riddled adversity we see in our student populations.
Our beloved prophet, President Nelson, alerted us during our recent general conference in these incredible times. I quote, "...so many are dealing with private and personal burdens no one can see."1 It is as if he so tuned in to the despair and helpless feelings of so many. He went on how other forms of adversity are on the world stage as in the conflict in eastern Europe in Ukraine and Russia. He confided how he "weeps and prays for all who are affected by this conflict."1 So many are being at risk by the choices of others and their own choices in pursuit of happiness.
Elder Holland, a long-time voice advocating for personal self-care and health, went further during his conference address indicating, and I quote, “for nearly two years a pandemic of biblical proportions has enveloped our planet, and while that plague brought a halt to almost everything socially, obviously it did not bring a halt to brutality, violence, and cruel aggression politically—nationally or internationally. As if that were not enough, we are still facing long-standing social and cultural challenges, ranging from economic deprivation to environmental desecration to racial inequity and more.”2
Our university community has not been immune to what our academic literature has documented during these times. Since the emergence of a coronavirus disease in December 2019, the whole world is in a state of chaos, and science is reporting new versions of the virus continue emerging even today.
Isolation strategy with quarantine is a model used in controlling transmission and rapid spread as applied around the world. As a result, people remained at home and disrupted their outside daily activities. It led to the closure of educational institutions and schools. University campuses we know are a conventional source for many students to cope with numerous personal and familial issues. According to recent publications in the Journal of Human Rights Healthcare Muhammad, et al. 3 an empirical base shows COVID impacts on college students.
As more university students stayed home during this pandemic, we learned from a large university study Hayden, 4 that association with anxiety and depression symptoms and depression severity were assessed. They found of all those surveyed 53 percent reported experiences with anxiety, 57 percent experienced depression, and 64 percent experienced both.
In the effort to deal with these social and emotional challenges, the survey reported a 54 percent increase in alcohol consumption overall. Most pronounced in this segment of coping with alcohol were students with severe anxiety 85 percent and those who self-reported severe depression increase was 80 percent. Lastly, in Bakken et al.  Deviant Behavior5 research of a random sample of nearly 1200 undergraduate students overall 7 percent reported engaging in NSSI or non-suicidal self-injury and suicidal ideation in the past year. This means that almost one out of ten of those college students experiencing psychosocial and health-related factors were found to be at an increased risk for NSSI and suicidal ideation.
As if in recognition of the data on young people on college campuses, Elder Holland went on to encourage us in our roles. I quote, “as leaders, advisers, friends, family—watch for signs of depression, despair, or anything hinting of self-harm. Offer your help. Listen. Make some kind of intervention as appropriate. In other words, create a momentum for healing for those you can contact.”2
To so many at-risk he reminded, I quote, ‘Someone who faced circumstances far more desperate than you and I ever will once cried: “Go forward [my beloved young friends]. Courage, … and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.”2
In his conference address, he quoted from D&C 128:22, “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free."6
Elder Holland said and I quote, “We have so much to be glad about. We have each other, and we have Him."2 As he stated, there is more and more a blending of our ecclesiastical insights with our scholarly findings, as reflected by the work of Dr. Laurie Santos, who Elder Holland referenced in his conference address.
Dr. Santos, a department chair and professor at Yale University, conducted a psychology class titled “In Search of Happiness,” which had the highest enrollment from across the country. 400,000 students enrolled in her class and over 60 million have visited her podcast on the topic "Searching For Happiness.”7 Writing about this phenomenon, one journalist noted how painful it is to see so many bright, young students—and adults—desperately “looking for something they’ve lost” or, worse yet, longing for something they never had. In that search for happiness for our own university community, could we have faith-based and evidenced-based options to consider?
With this data from our evidence-based scholarship combined with our spiritual leaders providing faith-based pleadings, ask yourself this question, have I noticed someone who might have anxiety, depression, or possible suicidal ideation?
Have I experienced these challenges? As we look down the aisle of those sitting next to you today, our academic literature indicates a representative sample could include at least one of those ten people during this time of COVID has had suicidal thoughts.
Such college campus data on mental health and to our myriad of challenges reflects the human service literature on what Dr. Martin Seligman, a renowned scholar, and psychologist, termed as learned helplessness.8 Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation; this pessimistic perspective permeates so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available.
Learned optimism, as pioneered by Seligman and supported by empirical evidence, promotes the courage, mindfulness, resilience, well-being, productivity and persistence necessary to face challenging and sometimes overwhelming tasks. Learned optimism is characterized by a sustainable hope paired with a clear and realistic appraisal of obstacles. The learned optimist models three P’s including making a personal choice, to be present, and allow that choice to be persistent. Being in the present personally is a behavioral choice that affects attitude, and like a virus, that attitudinal change can impact those around you. So learned optimism using the three P’s is one way to individually address your own health and help others who have similar mental health challenges. Social Workers call this a ‘micro’ or individual perspective towards change.
On our own campus, major efforts recognized these incidents and sense of helplessness. To this end, university strategies organizationally have been undertaken to address these challenges of those who may experience this sense of being helpless. On-campus nonstop testing for COVID serves as a vetting process. A drop-in health clinic also serves as a possible source of referral. Our counseling center for professional assistance modified intake to triage an order of selection for those most in need. Academic units stepped up on our campus with collaborative efforts, including academic advising, establishing peer mentoring, seminars, and workshops. All of these organizational strategies may be having an impact. These administrative acts may create a healthy environment for individuals to seek and find help. Social workers call this evidence of a ‘macro level’ approach to change across an entire organization. This collaborative approach of efficient use of resources, talents, and skills can contribute to what President Nelson called generating personal ‘momentum’ in concert with President Monson’s long-ago invitation to be ‘present.’
Dr. Santos (2020) in interviews about her work, stated "Too many of the young people I cared about were lonely, stressed about the future and intensely worried about their grades."9 But it wasn't just her Yale students who were struggling.
A 2018 survey of college students nationally reported that more than 40 percent were so depressed it was difficult to function, more than 60 percent had experienced overwhelming anxiety, and more than one in 10 had seriously considered suicide in the previous year. In her course, she suggested a strategy to help people reverse this anxiety and self-hurt ideation…the basic tenet may sound very familiar to the refrain from our spiritual leaders. These basic tactics included: Be present and be in the moment; Get Social; Get Rest and Move. Be Kind. Be thankful.
In Search of Happiness
To reverse anxiety and self-hurt:
- Be present in the moment.
- Get social.
- Get rest and move.
- Be kind.
- Be thankful.
First: Be present. Be in the moment.
Just as President Nelson counseled us to ‘create a momentum for now,’ even President Monson in another era encouraged twenty years earlier, I quote, “Sometimes we let our thoughts of tomorrow take up too much of today …longing for the future may provide comfort but will not take the place of living in the present…this is the day of our opportunity and we must grasp it.”10
Dr. Santos and others have indicated that we spend more than 40 percent of the time mind wandering, not paying attention to the here and now. Even as a growing body of research on optimism and happiness indicates that focusing on the here and now, makes us feel better.
Second: Be Social
Our current academic literature indicates happy people are more social. I think most of us would agree that being with other people impacts your level of happiness and can do the same for the people you congregate with. We can reap the rewards of a richer social life by taking purposeful steps and using technology tools like Zoom and FaceTime, including peers, and even loved ones who are time zones away during our preferred self-care acts that may include personal meditation, yoga, even morning exercise.
President Kevin J. Worthen at BYU in Provo [BYU Provo Devotional, 2021] has agreed about getting social.11 In a devotional address to his campus, he used an example of the dorms and stairways as an act of being present of “propinquity, the state of being close to someone or something, nearness.” The tendency of people to form close relationships with who they repeatedly encounter.
Residents of an apartment building living near a stairway tend to have more friends from other floors than those living further from the stairway. So, he recommended that this can be a positive factor in your life by consciously deciding to seek in-person contact with others. Including the technology that has allowed us to meet in the digital world during the pandemic, helps us to be present with and for others.
Third: Get Rest and Move
Dr. Santos indicated that in her research, sleep is important for our physical health. And it can also affect our mental health. My wife has tried to help me personally improve my sleep hygiene with modifications to our bedroom, mattress, and encourages me to only use the room for sleep, so I do not use my phone or laptop there, now. Simply put, with enough sleep you can perform at your best. My morning starts early and is full each day commuting from my house to the gym wearing my reflector vest on my bike so my neighbors and workout buddies can see me from far. My vest is not so much for notoriety as safety, I hope they can see me because sometimes I cannot see them. Yes, I am a danger on the roads on my bike.
In the dark hours of the morning before dawn, it is safer for them to see me, as I do not always see them on the Laie roads OR ride safely. Taking steps to join them requires me to try for an early sleep time, the evening before. I know, heavy sweating and breathing does not immediately come to mind when considering connections socially, but there is a group of other morning exercisers who regularly reinforce me to get to the gym, see them sweating, and sometimes laughing at me trying to keep up. Moving, sweating, and laughing together can really affect your level of happiness.
Fourth: Be Kind
As a form of self-care academic evidence suggests that to choose to care for others can help them overcome their sense of helplessness. When people are not using their learning responses to adaptive situations they typically accept bad things will happen and they have little control over these. This behavior is linked with depression, PTSD, and other health problems. Research indicates that helplessness increases feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
So, it is possible to build our own mental health in an evidence-based way by doing something good for another person. It is no surprise to those of our faith that people who are happiest self-report being happiest when focused on those in need. Just checking in, being present for others has a statistical level of effectiveness towards boosting our own well-being.
Lastly: Give Thanks
Showing and sharing gratitude can affect you emotionally and physically to reduce stress and depression. Dr. Santos reported expressing gratitude also makes your hormones cortisol levels reduce, you sleep better, you are in a better mood and your attitude shows it by being more optimistic than pessimistic.
Towards this end of expressing gratitude, we have long been encouraged in the church to journal as a form of self-care. Writing for yourself or as a chronicle for others allows us to write down things we are grateful for on a daily basis. Dr. Santos even suggests writing a thank you letter to a loved one, friend, or coworker. These acts can strengthen our bonds and help us to organize and recognize the blessing we receive and enjoy.
“Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”12
Sister Porter suggested in the women’s session of general conference that we can create a recipe for overcoming adversity, with simple ingredients. She referenced in the New Testament book of Mathew that heavy-laden can experience a yoke that is easy to bear and the burden light. She continued that small and simple acts can be significant. She used the analogy of baking a cake as a way to appreciate how little amounts of certain ingredients can result in positive, even tasty experiences. I quote, “That even though you may feel alone as storms of life are raging, you can shine a light in the darkness of misunderstanding, confusion, and unbelief. …Sisters, hearts can be changed and lives blessed as we offer a pinch of salt, a spoonful of leaven, and a ray of light.”13
“And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”14
Each one of us, be it ministering brethren, ministering sisters, Sunday school or even primary teachers demonstrates how we can learn and commit to provide vital service, to those individuals and families often under adverse and stressful circumstances, who may be hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, imprisoned and abandoned, “the least of these my brethren."7 This ministering to others is what Social Workers call a ‘mezzo’ perspective or having an impact on others in small groups or gatherings.
In my field by professional standards and ethical imperative, social workers seek to address the marginalization, stigma, oppression, deprivation, injuries, and inequalities of society. Frequently this call to duty includes services for the mental health, social and emotional struggles of individuals and families. Learned optimism, as pioneered by Seligman (1991) and supported by empirical evidence, promotes the courage, mindfulness, resilience, well-being, productivity, and persistence necessary to sustain those who face challenging and sometimes overwhelming tasks. Learned optimism as a tool for change is characterized by sustainable hope paired with a clear and realistic appraisal of obstacles.
John 13:34-35, " A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another."15
Elder Gary E. Stevenson in the last general conference reminded us that the Savior’s great commission can be accomplished through simple, easily understandable principles taught to each of us from childhood: love, share, and invite.16 He reminded us that aspiring to be Christlike exemplifies love for one another. When these principles are combined with the academic evidence of learned optimism of being present, with a pervasively persistent personal voice the impact can be amazing.
He went on to say how loving, sharing, and inviting others to the gospel is an example of loving one another. These are things, his words were, ‘easy things anyone can do,’ and that we might already be doing these things. We can be close, face to face, or even on our social media showing our love for one another by as President Monson encouraged and so many scholars agree, being present. To learn the lessons that can demonstrate your love for another, share that lesson in the present can invite your peer to be faithfully obedient to our covenants with Christ.
This is an example of a simple childhood act that represents being present for another. This is the nugget of living and being present as the ‘evidence of things hoped for.’ The impact from this experience has already created an optimistic lens of how I see the world and my life in the future with kids and grandkids. This was a special powerful spiritual lesson from my youngest grandson Willie.
One day, we finally had a chance to practice all our preparations for riding a bike. We had talked about the rules of the road. The importance of looking for safe places to ride and being smart about being safe on the road.
We plotted our course in the empty parking lot. We put together our bike safety equipment. We laced our shoes to protect his feet, special knee pads and elbow pads, and a helmet. Then after a few attempts to get our balance, we took off. It was a blast as he pretended to put out fires from his Blaze and Blippy replica bike. If you do not know who Blaze and Blippy are all you need to do is consult with a five-year-old for up-to-date TikTok and YouTube influencers.
As we took a rest, we dismounted from our bikes. He dropped his bike on the ground, he was still learning the nuances of pedals, brakes, and handlebars. Then we started to walk across the parking lot. I grabbed his hand to guide him to the spot we were headed to.
As we approached the cross-way path, he stopped walking. I strengthened my grip, preparing for him to bolt from my hand at any moment. As I stepped into the walkway, he gripped my hand, with both of his and stood his ground. I am thinking, now you want to be like this, you stubborn little guy? Then I finally looked up to see the car coming down the road.
He did not say a word, he just simply held my hand, present in the moment, following the instructions he learned from papa. I taught him, ‘always look both ways before you cross the road.’ He learned and was obedient to live that principle, in the moment.
A simple act, gracious, and present from a little boy saving his ‘papa.’ A lesson papa will always remember of his being faithful to his lessons and that he could persistently be present enough for both of us to be safe and healthy.
I pray we too can find ways to be present for ourselves, and for others as guided by our inspired leader’s faith-based instructions and valid academic literature. As we do so, you may feel how this caring for yourself and for others becomes a normal, natural part of our lives as disciples of Christ. That we may live our lives as the "evidence of things hoped for." May the Lord bless us all. In His holy name, Jesus Christ, amen.
- Russel M. Nelson, "The Power of Spiritual Momentum," April 2022 General Conference, Sunday Morning Session
- Jeffrey R. Holland, "Fear Not: Believe Only!" April 2022 General Conference, Saturday Afternoon Session
- Muhammad, A., et al, "International Journal of Human Rights in Health Care," May 17, 2022. (Risk assessment of exposure to COVID-19 virus: a cross-sectional study among health-care workers)
- Hayden, C., et al, "Journal of Loss and Trauma," January 2022, V. 27 Issue 1. (Social Interaction Within a Trauma-Exposed Population During the Early Phase of COVID-19)
- Bakken, N. W., "Deviant Behavior," V 42, 2021. (Risk Factors and Correlates of Self-Injurious Behavior and Suicidal Ideation Among College Students)
- Doctrine & Covenants 128:22
- David Marchese, “Yales Happiness Professor Says Anxiety is Destroying Her Students,” New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2022
- Martin E.P. Seligman, “Learned Optimism–How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” First Vintage Books, January 2006
- Laurie Santos, “Laurie Santos, Yale Happiness Professor, on 5 Things That Will Make You Happier,” Newsweek, December 2020.
- Thomas S. Monson, "In Search of Treasure," Church News, April 10, 2003
- Kevin J. Worthen, “The Propinquity Effect,” BYU Commencement, April 2022
- Matthew 11:28-30
- Susan H. Porter, "Lessons at the Well," April 2022 General Conference, Women's Session
- Matthew 25:40
- John 13:34-35
- Gary E. Stevenson, “Love, Share, Invite,” General Conference, April 2022