How a Wiccan chaplain helps U of A students with their mental health

In otherwise-secular institutions, like universities, religious clergy people will set up and act as a support mechanism for those who frequent the building.

Sam Wagar is one of three Wiccan university chaplains in Canada; acts as a spiritual resource for all students

This shop in Manitoba sells Wiccan and witchcraft items. The Wiccan chaplain at the University of Alberta, Sam Wagar, has been a student resource at the university for three years. (CBC)

In otherwise secular institutions, like universities, religious clergy people often act as a support mechanism for those who frequent the institution.

The University of Alberta has Muslim, Jewish and Christian chaplains — and it's one of three universities in Canada that has a Wiccan chaplain.

Sam Wagar is the university's Wiccan chaplain. Also known as neo-Pagan witchcraft, Wicca is a fairly new religion which started in the 1950s.

Wicca takes from various pre-Christian religions of Europe, along with ecological awareness and a dash of feminism.

Wagar started as the Wiccan chaplain at the U of A in 2014, working with both students and staff who are seeking his help. "Quite often, what students need is somebody to just listen, to help them through these different things," Wagar told CBC's Radio Active Monday.

"I'm pretty good at listening."

Sam Wagar says often the role of the chaplain is to just listen. (Sam Wagar/Supplied)

Wagar estimates there are anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people in Canada who would consider themselves Wiccan. At the university itself, he guesses there might be as few as 100 students.

But he said his door isn't just open to those who practise Wicca. "I've probably had more conversations with Muslims than I have had with Wiccans or Pagans," Wagar said. "[As chaplains], we're there for the entire university community."

Wagar said some students come to him to challenge his beliefs. "Occasionally, I have people trying to convert me," he said. "But that's a minority of my conversations."

A mental health resource

The conversations he does have are often spiritual but generally deal with students' daily struggles as young adults, looking for answers or just someone who will listen.

"[Maybe] there's 20 papers due tomorrow and their brains are fried and they really just need somebody to listen," Wagar said.

With university advocacy and government funding moving increasingly toward initiatives for mental health, Wagar said chaplains have a role to play in providing services for students.

"People come to us to talk about things when they're having difficulty," Wagar said. "That makes us a useful adjunct to the university's mental health programs."

But there are key differences between chaplains and mental health workers: one being the university isn't on the hook for chaplain services. The chaplains are partially paid for by their religious institution, as well as by their own fundraising.

We're there for the entire university community.- Sam Wagar , Wiccan  chaplain

Another difference is the type of guidance they provide. Although Wagar said the chaplain's role is to support students however they can, most come to him looking for spiritual guidance.

"The chaplain's role is to act as a spiritual resource to the entire university community," he said. "What we're there for is to remind people that the life of scholarship, of teaching, of learning, of research also has a spiritual component to it."