UNC recommended that faculty pause instruction on Friday in recognition of World Mental Health Day to provide students with a much-needed “break” in the semester. But the singular day given did little to help the majority of students, especially when many are in desperate need of substantial rest from an already shortened, and therefore draining, semester.
In addition to UNC’s lack of care for its students, this supposed “pause” further shows how conversations regarding mental health and illness, especially in our professional and academic settings, are so largely surface-level.
Instead of students having to beg administration for days off, our institutions should be aiming to create a university culture where, in addition to substantial breaks, the deeper infrastructure needed to support mental health is already in place. A larger cultural shift is necessary to understand that mental health is just as important as physical health and deserves to be accommodated.
Although breaks are greatly important, poor mental health cannot be remedied only by days off and, like any illness, requires access to resources, treatment and care. We need access to affordable short and long-term mental health care for everyone, culturally competent providers and resources specifically for communities who are more affected, such as the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to this, building the infrastructure to truly care for mental health would include access to safe and affordable housing, harm reduction and outreach for substance use, as well as functioning violence prevention systems and response offices.
A culture that is conscious of mental health is one which creates an environment where students are fully supported, where they don't need to rely solely on University-recommended "pauses" in order to make it through each semester. Mental health discourse needs to be centered on how we can create that reality, especially in professional and academic settings.
A cultural shift is needed to understand on a larger level that mental illness is disabling, and must be accommodated as such. Stigmas that associate mental illness with laziness and underperformance need to be removed, and replaced with empathy, understanding and trust. No one chooses mental illness — and expecting students to put aside their well-being and continue working amid exhaustion and burnout is cruel.
Having these deeper-level discussions centered in trust, empathy and care in professional and academic settings can help us build the infrastructure we desperately need to support everyone’s mental well-being.
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