Mental health in North Carolina has been a large topic of discussion in recent years. In response, public universities in the state have been steadily progressing in accommodating students' needs.
This month, Gov. Roy Cooper announced $7.7 million in funding for mental health resources at universities in the state.
Andrea DeSantis, a policy advisor for Cooper, said the governor granted $5 million to the UNC System to expand its mental health resources for students in 2021.
She said the UNC System requested this additional funding to continue existing programs and explore new initiatives.
“Mental health, especially for our students in post-secondary institutions, is a huge priority across the state,” DeSantis said.
The UNC System used the initial funding for various programs, including Mental Health First Aid, a course that trains students and faculty on how to understand and respond to mental health and substance use disorders.
Alicia Freeman, the coordinator for MHFA at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she would love to be able to expand the program at the University.
They currently offer training for adults, but there are programs for people who work with teens and children that she thinks would benefit the community.
Freeman has been a trainer at UNC-CH since 2019 and has seen people become more comfortable supporting others with mental health challenges. In addition, she said data shows that those who participate in the training become more confident in their abilities to help people at risk of suicide.
“I think overall, this program helps us to de-stigmatize mental health challenges,” she said.
A new program being explored is suicide prevention training, which will teach participants how to identify and respond to students who are at risk.
The UNC System would partner with the QPR Institute to provide this training to all 17 UNC System schools.
QPR training, which stands for Question, Persuade, Refer, teaches bystanders how to provide initial support to someone in need and gives them information on where they can find additional support on their campus.
Kim Mitchell, director for student development for the UNC System, said the institute is also looking into System-wide resiliency training for incoming students. She said the pandemic put the world into a reactive state, and the UNC System wants to shift toward a proactive approach for new students.
A report by the UNC System found that depression rates in post-secondary students increased during the pandemic, with 47 percent of students exhibiting "clinically significant" symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Mitchell said part of the goal of the Mental Health First Aid training is to make people feel as comfortable helping people in a mental health crisis as they would helping someone who had been physically injured.
“I think you should think of mental health first aid side-by-side with basic first aid that you’re thinking of because both are important,” she said.
Mark Perez-Lopez, the director of the counseling center at UNC Wilmington, said he would like to see the new funding go toward expanding the programs that currently exist on his campus.
UNCW used the funding from 2021 to pay for an after-hours crisis response called Protocall which allows students to access a mental health professional at any time of day, even after the counseling center on their campus closes.
Perez-Lopez said they also used the funding for off-campus microgrants. Those grants go to students who may not be able to receive the support they need from campus services and can then use the grants as financial assistance in seeking off-campus treatment.
Mental Health First Aid has been one of the most beneficial programs for UNCW, Perez-Lopez said. By being able to offer the training more frequently, he has seen the campus become better trained in supporting students.
He said that, as a whole, it is important to see funding like this come from high positions such as the UNC System and governor's office.
“I think that it demonstrates the recognition now in our society, but specifically in our state, that students coming to college nowadays have a wide range of needs outside of the traditional classroom,” he said.
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