The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday September 21st

Navigating the steps to a psychological underload at UNC

With less than two weeks of classes left, Charlotte is still seeking help from the University to address her semester-long mental health concerns.

This week, Charlotte expects to file an appeal that would allow her to drop a course and underload for psychological reasons. Months of meetings and protocols have landed her here — only a few days away from completing a process she began in January under the University’s guidance.

“The advisor that I saw was super supportive and encouraged taking care of health above all things,” she said. “Honestly it was surprising to me how much support she was giving for dropping the class.”

Underloading for psychological reasons is just one option for students seeking help to balance their mental health and academic requirements. Fewer than 100 students underload each semester for psychological and medical reasons, said UNC spokesperson Jeni Cook.

Students more often maintain a full course load but seek mental health support from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) or other University departments, said Desirée Rieckenberg, senior associate dean of students.

Rieckenberg said her office’s primary role in supporting students with mental health concerns is to connect them with the appropriate resources on campus. She said most students are aware of CAPS but not necessarily of the opportunities available at academic advising or accessibility resources.

It’s also important to streamline the support, Rieckenberg said.

“We want to do as much as we can so you’re not going to get bounced around and you have an understanding of where you’re going and why you’re going there,” she said.

Charlotte was directed to academic advising by CAPS after her initial visit in January. She was told in order to underload she would need a letter from a therapist. Charlotte had been seeing a psychiatrist, not a therapist, which meant adding another step to the process.

“I thought that when I went to CAPS that I was going to be able to do everything through them,” Charlotte said.

“You’re already stressed out about everything, so having to change your plans and meet up with way more people than you had originally planned is frustrating.”

On Monday her therapist finalized the required letter, allowing Charlotte to move forward with her appeal.

“The process should probably be simplified,” she said. “If someone’s really having all this trouble, is it really necessary to put them through more stress?”

Making students aware of the services available and providing easy access to those resources are considered national best practices for colleges to support students with mental illness, said Amy Lenhart, president of the American College Counseling Association.

Many of the practices Lenhart mentioned are already in place at UNC. Alternative therapy options, properly trained counselors, faculty outreach and education all exist at UNC but are not guaranteed at smaller colleges, like Lenhart’s Texas community college.

More than anything, Lenhart said, a university can support its students by encouraging positive conversations around mental health.

Nelson Pace founded Stigma Free Carolina two years ago in an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. He said his group has received incredible support from the University since.

“We came to the University with possible solutions to a lot of the problems with mental health or stigma on campus,” Pace said. “And when they saw that we had solutions and were willing to put forth the work, they supported the initiatives by funding them or getting the word out.”

Stigma Free Carolina has held events and campaigns in an effort to encourage the conversation surrounding mental health, some with money from UNC. But Pace said the University most significantly supports his organization by spreading the message of mental wellness across departments.

Rieckenberg said part of her office’s job is to shepherd students toward a healthier concept of success, which often requires addressing traditional concepts of academic success and mental health.

“Many students at Carolina — they’re so high achieving. They want to try to do everything they can to be successful,” she said. “Success for each individual student is different, so we’re not saying that you have to get a 4.0 or that that’s what success is. Whatever success is to you, we want you to be able to achieve that.”

Charlotte said adjusting her concept of success was an important step in deciding to appeal for a psychological underload.

“It seems wrong,” she said. “You look around at everyone else and what they’re doing with their lives and it just doesn’t seem right. It seems off track.”

Charlotte said UNC’s emphasis on completing a degree in four years discourages students from taking time and taking care of their mental health.

“It seems crazy, you know. Making that decision is really hard when four years is such a big deal here,” she said. “Four years and you should be done. Make sure you get all these classes in. Make sure all your gen eds are done.”

Charlotte will be able to graduate on time despite underloading this semester, but she said most of the people she knows who have taken the time to address mental health concerns are taking longer than four years to graduate.

She said the atmosphere of achievement at UNC leads to misconceptions of success.

“You walk around the campus thinking that everyone’s OK but really the majority of students have these hidden issues that they’re not addressing.”



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