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UNC’s changing approach to students’ mental health over the decade

Holding Hands

Students often know that therapists and mental health services exist on campus, according to Samantha Brosso, a PhD student in the social psychology department at UNC. But it can be harder to gain the confidence to use them. Photo illustration by Anna Neil.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rethink: Psychiatric Illness was ended due to budget cuts. The program continues today as a committee of the Campus Y. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

A 2010 survey of 1,969 UNC first-years found that about one in 20 had seriously considered suicide within the past year. Approximately 1.2 percent of them had attempted suicide within the same period. 

The proportion of students seeking help from Counseling and Psychological Services has increased within the past decade. In response to this trend, administrators, members of student government and on-campus clubs have increased efforts to address mental health concerns.  

In 2011, Rethink: Psychiatric Illness — a living-learning community within UNC’s Connected Learning Program — was formed. Members hosted mental health training programs to educate others and combat stigma. The Connected Learning Program where Rethink began ended, but Rethink has continued as a committee  of the Campus Y since 2012.

Efforts to educate others about mental illness continued through other outlets. From January 2016 to the summer of 2018, the Behavioral Healthcare Resource Program provided free Mental Health First Aid training for faculty and staff at UNC. The training, which focused on a five-step plan to navigate through critical mental health situations, was supported by a federal grant of almost $400,000.

The past decade has featured public displays intended to raise awareness about mental illness. In March 2017, the UNC Interfraternity Council and UNC System Association of Student Governments placed 1,400 lime green flags in Polk Place. Lime green is the recognized color for mental health awareness, and each flag represented 10 people who would suffer from mental illness during their academic career at UNC. 

Send Silence Packing also came to Polk Place in 2012 and 2016. The organization displayed 1,100 backpacks on the quad to represent the 1,100 students who die by suicide each year. 

The number of student groups dedicated to mental health awareness has increased within the last decade. In 2017, UNC was home to two student-run mental health organizations: Rethink: Psychiatric Illness and Active Minds. Mental Health Ambassadors was founded that year in order to focus on mental health skills training and professional outreach. Today, students can also get involved with Walk. Support. Glow., the Buddy Project, and We Wear the Mask. 

Student Government’s Mental Health Committee created another organization in 2018: The UNC-Chapel Hill Mental Health Coalition. The coalition aims to coordinate among different mental health organizations and create a more unified approach to addressing mental health concerns on campus, said Mental Health Ambassadors president Catie Sappenfield. 

Sappenfield said students have become more open to discussing their mental health, more willing to go to CAPS, and more likely to join mental health initiatives. 

“I think the stigma around mental is starting to show cracks and starting to break down and I think you can definitely see that with the students’ willingness to go talk about mental health and to join mental health initiatives," Sappenfield said.  

Student Government also hosted its first Mental Health Awareness Week in April 2019 and launched a new peer support network in September 2019. The peer support network seeks to provide students with an outlet to discuss mental health issues by meeting once a week for an hour. 

The administration has also undertaken new initiatives to address students’ mental health concerns, especially in the past few years. 

In March of 2018, the Mental Health Task Force was created in order to review existing policies surrounding mental health, gather perspectives and formulate better recommendations to serve the student body. 

The task force delivered a report in May 2019, showing that therapy appointments at CAPS increased 28 percent between 2012 and 2016, and urgent next-day follow-up appointments increased about 105 percent. Members recommended creating a full-time committee on mental health, a centralized system for student consultations and a form of 24-hour contact with mental health professionals. 

CAPS implemented CAPS 24/7 this semester, an after-hours resource for students experiencing a mental health crisis or in need of mental health support or guidance. Students can call the CAPS phone number, (919)-966-3658, any time after office hours and connect with a mental health professional. 

Another resource for students with mental health concerns was added when first request for an emotional support animals was made in 2015. As of 2018, 19 animals were approved.

Despite these advancements in addressing mental health concerns, some students say the University can do more in the next decade.

Elizabeth Campbell, a sophomore with generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar II disorder, said attendance policies should be done away with. 

“If we allow ourselves to be a little bit more forgiving of each other as a whole, then these people who are mentally ill won’t feel like they’re speaking out so much,” Campbell said. 

Maya Tadross, a member of Walk. Support. Glow., a suicide prevention club on campus, said she would like the University to promote the importance of mental health for everyone. 

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“You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental illness to go to CAPS,” Tadross said. “You can go even if you’re just having trouble with one little thing or something like that just to emphasize that like even if you don’t have a severe condition that you can still get help.”