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Q&A: CAPS director Avery Cook talks student mental health at UNC

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Avery Cook, the new CAPS director, smiles for a portrait in their office on Friday, March 10, 2023.

Avery Cook recently became the director of UNC Counseling and Psychological Services.

Staff writer Holly Adams sat down to talk with them about their career and hopes for the future of CAPS. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: What positive changes have you seen at CAPS in recent years?

Avery Cook: One of the positive changes we've had are two programs that we started that have been really impactful. The first is our multicultural health program. It is a group of our staff who are focused on work with BIPOC students on campus. They do a ton of outreach, they make really great connections with students and they offer really innovative programming. 

We've also started an embedded counselor program with some therapists that are housed in different schools and programs on campus, like the pharmacy school and law school. They get to know their students really closely, get to know those programs, get to know the stressors that are involved.

Another initiative that we launched last year was a telehealth option within our service, so that folks can access therapy, nights and weekends during non-traditional hours. Lots of students are busy between 8-5 when we're open, but they would still really like to engage in therapy, so we want to make sure they have access to that. 

DTH: You mentioned that the needs of students have changed since the time you've been here. How have they changed?

AC: All kinds of ways. We never used to do telehealth before or Zoom sessions. I think students now want to make sure that they have access pretty immediately. So not just having access in terms of being able to walk in and talk to somebody but being able to call CAPS at 2 in the morning and talk to a therapist.

DTH: What more can the school do, in addition to CAPS’ services, to support students’ mental health?

AC: I think one of the great conversations that we have been having over the past couple of years is the idea that the goal is for everyone on campus to be invested in positive mental health. That it's not just the role of CAPS to solve mental health on this campus — we all play a role in that. And that means that yes, CAPS is going to be the place where folks go for treatment, but we can all be doing things to help support one another, in terms of their mental wellness. Professors can be open to conversation and can connect with their students. And that goes for staff as well. But it also goes for fellow students. I think you all also want to know that you're there to support each other. This really lives up to the idea of this being a campus community.

DTH: Why do you think that access to mental health services for individuals from marginalized backgrounds is so important?

AC: I think we have a lot of populations that experience trauma based on their identity, and that can be racialized trauma, or trauma within the queer community, particularly the trans community right now. And, there are lots of folks that, because of their identity, they experience levels of discrimination that impacts their mental health. And we want to make sure that anyone that is experiencing that gets the support that they need.  

DTH: What hope do you have for this generation with mental health care?

AC: The awareness and the advocacy around mental health is super inspiring. And it's not something that was talked about nearly as much 10 years ago, certainly not 20 years ago, definitely not 30 years ago. The fact that students are coming in now with sort of awareness of mental health challenges, but also an awareness of the importance of mental wellness and self-care. The fact that students now are not only advocating for themselves to get support when they need it, but also encouraging friends and classmates to get support when they need it.

DTH: What challenges do you face in this job, working with college students?

AC: There are definitely challenges, and the challenges are also kind of beautiful, right? When you're sitting down and talking with somebody who's having a hard time, it can get to you. Emotionally, it can be something that you carry. At the same time, you're recognizing that someone has been brave enough to share their struggles with you. And so it's heavy, but it's really beautiful that somebody has honored you in that way. Every job has things that are hard about it. I think the great thing about being a therapist, and particularly being a therapist here, is even in the hard days, we recognize that for the most part, we all really love what we do. And we really want to be here, and we want to support students.

DTH: But what is your favorite part of being at UNC?

AC: I will say my favorite thing about being here is, because I have a therapy dog, we go for a walk every day — up to Franklin Street and back around. I get to walk through the quad and see folks hanging out and walking around and just having a great time. Particularly in the spring when everyone’s out there, playing and everything, people just want to come up and sort of love on Maya a little bit. That's what I love, is there's all this energy. And even in the midst of hard things, there’s a lot of joy. Being able to walk every day and see these little pockets of joy everywhere is amazing. 

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