Over the last several years, the mental health of college-aged people has become a concern across the United States. Universities have worked to combat these mental health concerns through campus initiatives and programs, and UNC-Chapel Hill is no exception. The campus has faced mental health crises over the years, which has caused concern regarding the well-being of students. Despite the variety of resources available on campus, students have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the resources meant to address mental health and overall well-being.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dialogue surrounding mental health at UNC-CH gained attention after students were sent home for the 2020-2021 school year. Additional events, such as four student suicides in fall 2021, also sparked heavy concerns regarding the well-being of students.
On Aug. 28, UNC-CH graduate student Tailei Qi killed UNC-CH Associate Professor Zijie Yan in a shooting at Caudill Laboratories on the UNC-CH campus. This reignited the conversation surrounding mental health, particularly among the graduate and professional student community.
UNC Student Affairs addresses elements of mental health and well-being on campus with both specific and broader initiatives. The division oversees Campus Health, which is an umbrella organization that includes Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They also oversee UNC Student Wellness, which engages in health promotion, education and prevention work.
Amy Johnson, the vice chancellor of student affairs, said COVID-19 was a turning point in the conversation surrounding mental health at universities, and at UNC-CH specifically. “We’re talking about mental health and well-being in a way today that we were not five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago,” Johnson said. “It is our adjective in student affairs, and in partnership with lots of folks around campus, to keep that [mental health and well-being] conversation going and to make it an organic part of our daily discussions, resources and the initiatives that we build.”
Some common concerns associated with mental health at UNC-CH are related to academic rigor, and a lack of communication regarding resources on campus.
LeeAnn Zainy, a senior political science and global studies major, with a minor in Arabic, is a resident advisor in Hinton James Residence Hall, a dormitory, and recalled seeing this concern firsthand. “I’ve had students come up to me and tell me they’re suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression, or they’ve gone through a loss of some kind, and they won’t even reach out to their professors because they know they’ll get behind,” Zainy said. “They’re so concerned about their academic well-being that their mental well-being gets pushed to the back. And they’re not aware of the variety of different resources that we [UNC-CH] have.”
Mahika Nagaradona, a sophomore majoring in biophysics, also said academic work and rigor are her main cause of stress, and it can impact her personal life. “It can affect my health, like sometimes I don’t eat because I’m so stressed out, like I forget and skip meals,” she said. “I get sick easily too because of that.”
Well-being days, although not connected to student affairs, is another campus initiative to address mental health.
Previously known as wellness days, former UNC-CH chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz worked alongside the team at the UNC Registrar’s Office to create days throughout the academic term without classes, which would give students a break to focus on their mental health. The expectation was that professors would not assign anything to be due on a well-being day.
“Students at Carolina, and frankly all over the country, had expressed a desire to have some periodic breaks in the semester to catch their breath and come to terms with the global mental health pandemic they were dealing with in addition to everything else,” Johnson said.
However, students such as senior communication studies major Mattie Beeson, who is an RA in Hinton James, have concerns regarding the effectiveness of well-being days. “I think that they [well-being days] are beneficial but not in the way that they were intended to be,” Beeson said. “Because no one is able to take that day to just focus on themselves. Most of the time it’s a catch-up homework day.”
Nagaradona expressed similar concerns about having to do work on her day off. “I don’t know why but professors love to have assignments due on well-being days, or the day after,” Nagaradona said. “And I know they’re not supposed to do that, so you’re spending your well-being day doing your work.”
Despite the various resources available at UNC-CH, students have also raised concerns regarding the effectiveness and communication surrounding resources such as CAPS.
“We [student affairs] know that at Carolina, we have a significant number of health and well-being resources,” Johnson said. “Our challenge is that we have so many, and because we are such a large university, they are in so many different places, so the issue becomes, ‘How do I know what we have and how do I find the things that are right for me?’”
Johnson also said that Student Affairs’ creation of the Heels Care Network, a hub for mental health and well-being resources at UNC-CH, was an initiative meant to combat the possible lack of knowledge that students have when reaching out for help.
Students such as Beeson acknowledged the pros and cons associated with the mental health resources offered at UNC-CH. “I can only speak for myself, but I know there’s a weird stigma around CAPS on campus,” Beeson said. “A lot of people have had very negative interactions with CAPS. Personally, I have been to CAPS and have had a really good experience, and they helped me find a therapist who I still see regularly, and this was a year and a half ago.”
Ryder Klein, a sophomore computer science and music major, said CAPS is helpful for students who need someone to reach out to. “I think CAPS does a really good job at doing all they can with the limited resources they have,” he said. “I find it to be a very accessible place.”
According to an email from Avery Cook, director of CAPS, multiple services are offered for students with the most popular being brief therapy, group therapy and medication management. Cook also said the number of students seeking services at CAPS increases at the beginning of the academic year, during midterms and toward the end of the semester.
“Brief therapy is effective for concerns that are emergent and haven’t had treatment in the past,” Cook said in an email. “For students that have needs that would be better served by open ended treatment, we will help them connect with a community provider. We keep a list of community providers so we can help search for a good match by presenting concern, insurance and student preferences.”
The majority of CAPS services are paid for by student health fees, which are mandatory for full-time students at UNC-CH. Medication management is the only exception.
With a connection between academic rigor and mental health concerns, a new resource has emerged in the form of well-being coaches.
Shana Sobhani and Devon Pelto serve as the well-being coaches at UNC-CH. They are both masters students in the UNC School of Social Work and coaching allows them to increase direct practice experience.
The purpose of the well-being coaches is to provide social support for first-year students at Hinton James. This is the second year of the program, which is in a pilot stage.
According to Sobhani, coaching is beneficial if a student wants extra support for stress or other aspects of life, especially if a student doesn’t want to do an intake for a therapist. “Coaching is like an addition to any other support you’re getting, whether that is with friends or family,” Sobhani said. “It’s that sweet spot because the entry point is easy, there’s no matching and waiting. We can respond quite quickly and set up a meeting, and it can be done for regular everyday stress and things that come up.”
Sobhani said students can reach out to the well-being coaches through the RA’s in the dorm to set up an in-person or Zoom meeting.
As an RA in Hinton James, Beeson said she hasn’t had a resident approach her about a meeting with a well-being coach, but she has encouraged it in meetings with her residents.
Zainy has met with a well-being coach and said it was beneficial. “It can be nicer than therapy because it’s less intense and not as serious as CAPS, and I’m talking to people who have experienced the same things since they’re students too,” she said.
Director of Wellness Robin Sansing oversees the coaches and said there is a potential for the program to expand. “If the pilot is successful, the hope would be to offer well-being coaching to all the students in the residence halls,” Sansing said in an email.
Programs such as the well-being coaches, and efforts to address mental health within the graduate and professional student population, reveal light at the end of the tunnel amidst concerns about resources at UNC-CH.
According to Johnson, advocacy involving mental health for graduate and professional students has existed before, but they have become especially interested in the topic since the campus shooting. The group is advocating for a graduate student bill of rights to create a baseline set of expectations that persist across schools and departments.
“They [graduate and professional students] tend to be individuals who are more likely to have families, who are more likely to be holding jobs; their roles are inherently different than that of an undergrad,” Johnson said. “And all those things add stressors. So how we can recognize the different hats that graduate and professional students wear, and respond and provide support as we can, is something that I think has been kicked into a higher gear as a result of incidents such as the one that happened on our campus this fall.”
Undergraduate students, such as Zainy, are still looking for ways to address mental health more effectively at UNC-CH.
“I want to sit down with our chancellor and I want to bring everything to the table,” Zainy said. “As a senior who has witnessed a shooting, suicides, getting sent home [during the pandemic] and then all of that impacting my academics – I would simply sit down with the chancellor and tell him my story.”
Call 919-966-3658 for the UNC-CH CAPS 24/7 Phone Line free of charge.
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
- Reflecting on the Benefits and Concerns of Mental Health Resources at UNC-CH - February 9, 2024