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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial Q&A: Student mental health and structural change

DTH Photo Illustration. A student uses UNC's Counseling and Psychological Services. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decline in mental health for many students.

Opinion editor Paige Masten spoke with Raleigh Cury and Nikhil Rao, co-facilitators of the UNC-Chapel Hill Mental Health Coalition, about student mental health and the distressing lack of University-funded resources and support for students on campus. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: So what is the Mental Health Coalition, and what role does it play at UNC?

Raleigh Cury: I was actually the co-director of the inaugural Mental Health Task Force in Student Government for the 2018-2019 school year. My co-director and I, Emma Caponigro, who has since graduated, founded the Mental Health Coalition in the fall of 2018. It was part of former Student Body President Savannah Putnam’s platform. 

We founded the coalition to basically gather all mental health organizations on campus. We have administrators there, and it's basically just a space where we stay connected and we stay in touch. This year, Nikhil and I really want to change the structure to make it a little bit less event-based and more substantive. I think it's time that the whole campus community sees the Mental Health Coalition and what it does, and is able to really use the organization as a tool.

Nikhil Rao: I think one of the things we're explicitly looking to transform as we're moving into this year is really using our voice, not only through statements, but also connecting to administrators more and influencing University-level policy in that way. Ultimately, the coalition is a collection of people who really know and understand the mental health landscape at UNC, so we really want to utilize it as a platform to connect people who work in mental health on campus with administrators who can create policy changes.

DTH: The Mental Health Coalition released a statement Friday addressing the mental health climate at UNC. Why did you decide to make that statement?

RC: We found out about the mental health pause scheduled for Friday barely a week in advance, after we'd also lost University Day without the University explicitly acknowledging they were taking away a break — it was kind of mind-boggling to us, to say the least. And it's an optional day, so it's not going to be enforced. And again, it's shifting the burden onto professors to make up this time, since accreditation is evidently an issue. And it also came in the wake of the University denying our request for Election Day off

So we're just kind of befuddled, I guess, for lack of a better word, and frustrated, too. Nikhil and I have both had so many conversations with administrators and been in so many spaces where students are advocating for better policies, and at the end of the day, mental health is about more than self-care and going to therapy. It's about the well-being of the community, and good policies holistically — and we're not seeing that at all at UNC, which is kind of the impetus for releasing the statement. 

NR: As we were writing the statement, we really reflected on all the things over the past couple of months. All of UNC’s policy decisions, which have adversely impacted student mental health — poor planning of the return to campus, not having mass testing or symptom checkers, not being able to control off-campus spread. All these things, which we know aren't directly related to mental health, but still do affect students because we feel both physiologically and psychologically unsafe. We just really wanted to sort of encapsulate all that and sort of translate it into what was ultimately a list of demands for the University in the name of mental health, so we can keep our campus safe and well.

DTH: Why is this focus on student mental health so important right now?

RC: A lot of students are just incredibly burned out, and not well cared for. It's not a great campus climate, and we see that a lot of our mental health services are underfunded. They don't have the resources or the personnel to provide the care that students need. They're all doing so much work, and I think it's impossible for them to address the scope of the problem with what they have, but we've heard repeatedly that there just isn't the funding for mental health. So many awful things have happened on campus just in our time here, and students have really suffered because of poor leadership at every level. And of course that impacts mental health — the uncertainty and the instability and the turmoil.

DTH: Anything else?

NR: I think just a general point of emphasis for me is that when we're thinking about, systemically, what students need to preserve their mental health, it's University-funded support services more so than Instagram stories that tell us to "take a break." It's not feeling like the rug can be pulled out from under us at any time. It's all of these things, which really serve as foundational pillars of mental health on campus.

RC: I think both of us are really big on structural change and looking at the people who are charged with creating a good experience for us at UNC. And you know, that’s not just University leadership — that is the Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors, the North Carolina General Assembly. I'm tired of having administrators look me in the eye and say, “Sorry, we don't have the funding, students will have to figure out how to support each other.” Well, that's all I've spent the last four years doing — unpaid mental health work for this University. I would like to be supported by the University that I am a customer and a stakeholder of, that I pay tuition for.


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