At USC, Soni Meets Mental Health Crisis with Mindfulness

Harvard Divinity School

By Paul Massari

April 22, 2019

The United States is suffering through an epidemic of youth mental illness. For Varun Soni, MTS ’99, the crisis is not only one of mind, but also of spirit.

The nonprofit, independent news site The Conversation reports that “from 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Survey on Drug Use and Health. “Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017.”

“Historically, it’s been the oldest generation in the United States that has been the loneliest,” Soni says. “But studies now show that the loneliest generation in the United States right now are post-millennials, our youngest. There is a crisis, a spiritual crisis of loneliness in higher education among students.”

As Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC), Soni does all he can to address this crisis by bringing meaning and mindfulness into the lives of the school’s 65,000-person community. For this work—and for uniting spirituality, scholarship, and service—Soni will be recognized on May 2 at HDS as a 2019 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling of being recognized by one’s alma mater, but I know that I will always cherish this honor,” he says. “Sitting in class with future professors of religion and future clerics of religion was something so unique within my education. It has come to define my job at USC in many ways. And I only got it at HDS.”

Mindful USC
Soni’s job puts him at the center of USC’s efforts to promote wellness throughout its community—a task that’s more important than ever, he says.

“I believe a third of my students are struggling with overwhelming stress, anxiety, and depression,” he says. “That’s 15,000 students. My office does a lot around wellness so that we’re not just triaging crises downstream when it becomes most severe, but also thinking about the cultural and institutional determinants of health on our campus before people go into crisis.”

The first non-Christian dean of religious life at a major U.S. university, Soni was raised Hindu, but has been heavily influenced by Buddhism. In fact, it was his experience living in a Buddhist monastery while an undergraduate at Tufts that inspired him to launch Mindful USC, an initiative that promotes student wellness through meditation and mindfulness practices.

“I went abroad to India through the Antioch Buddhist Studies Program,” he remembers. “It’s where I first met the Dalai Lama. You meditate under the tree of Buddhist enlightenment. When I came back to Tufts, I began to teach my friends what I learned in the monastery to help them reduce stress. Later, at USC, I thought, ‘Is it possible to bring this to an entire university?’”

Varun Soni and Dalai LamaSoni was an undergraduate when he first met the Dalai Lama during a year-long sojourn at a Buddhist monastery

Soni says that administrators got behind Mindful USC because “the science caught up with the spirituality.” Data showed that mindfulness increased emotional intelligence, workplace productivity, and attention span even as it decreased anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Soni’s team framed the initiative in terms of health outcomes and partnered with university researchers to document results.

“We have a whole group on campus who study mindfulness,” he explains. “We’re using our own data to prove the concept.”

Today, about 1,500 faculty, students, and staff take part in the nearly 40 mindfulness classes that Soni’s office offers every year. Any concerns about promoting religion at a secular university have dissolved in the face of the community’s enthusiasm for the offerings.

“I have yet to have someone say to me, ‘Why are you promoting Buddhism on a secular university campus,’” Soni says. “All I get is ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’”

Perhaps most surprising has been the response of the parents of undergraduates, who vigorously support Mindful USC.

“They get it,” he says. “They want their kids to be participants in their own well-being, in their own mental health, rather than just passive recipients of whatever emotions they might be feeling.”

A View from Above—and from the Trenches
Beyond his work on student wellness, Soni tries to foreground questions of meaning, purpose, significance, and identity—and to do so in a way that is not exclusively theological. As a result, he has won over many of USC’s students, two-thirds of whom identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

“I’m more concerned about what makes us human than what makes god ‘GOD,’” he says. “That’s been extremely helpful in giving our office the opportunity to engage the entire university community wherever they’re at, and to inspire them to think deeply about the big issues in their lives.”

Of course, being the dean of religious life means attending to the thousands of students on campus who do identify with a tradition. Soni oversees almost 100 different student religious groups—the most, he says, of any U.S. university. It also means supervising almost 60 chaplains representing dozens of faiths and denominations—all in Los Angeles, one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world.

“Our students represent every faith tradition on the planet and many denominational perspectives,” he says. “We have more chaplains and religious directors on our campus than any American university. The opportunities to do this work—to have students really think about the big questions in their lives and lean into their relationships, communities, and service—is extraordinary and probably unparalleled.”

Soni and Gomez
Soni with the Most Reverend José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles. The USC campus is home to almost 100 different religious groups.

Soni’s many other responsibilities range from the academic to the administrative and just about everything in between. He teaches a course on world religions, grapples with the tensions between free speech and hate speech on campus, works to improve diversity and inclusion, navigates immigration laws and travel bans, and even helps assess threats to campus safety.

“It’s my job to help keep our campus free from targeted violence,” Soni says. “I work very closely with the FBI, LAPD’s Threat Management Unit, LA County’s Department of Mental Health, and USC’s Department of Public Safety. It puts me on the frontline of both shadow and light on campus, of both triumph and tragedy.”

What he loves most about his job is the way it enables him to see and interact with the University community on many different levels. As a member of the provost’s cabinet, for instance, Soni participates in high-level, university-wide conversations. As the university’s head chaplain, though, he engages students one on one in pastoral care and counseling.

“My work allows me to operate effectively and efficiently and also gives me a sense of the richness of life on campus,” he says. “I see the university from a bird’s eye view and from the trenches.”