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Gaps in UNC mental health resources exposed by 2023 gun violence

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

Nina Fisher, a senior psychology major, said that despite using mental health resources through a telehealth therapy app, for several weeks following the Aug. 28 campus shooting and the Sept. 13 gun threat at Alpine Bagel, her mental health took a dip and the sense of security she had on campus was gone.

"I remember telling my friends. I was like, 'I'm really, really, really bothered by this,'" Fisher said. "I was not sleeping."

Throughout 2023, the University expanded its well-being programs and parts of the campus community provided additional support. But the aftermath of gun violence on campus exposed some gaps in mental health support for impacted students and faculty.

During the spring semester, Hinton-James Residence Hall started offering WellBeing coaching to residents in a collaboration with Carolina Housing and the School of Social Work. The two coaches, both master’s students in the social work school, were added to bridge the gap between the support that resident advisors are able to provide and more formal counseling, such as UNC's Counseling and Psychological Services.

At several points this year, CAPS implemented embedded counselors at various schools, including the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Adams School of Dentistry.

“Our embedded counselor [in the dental school] has just started in the past few weeks and is getting everything up and running there,” Avery Cook, director of CAPS, said. “So that program continues to expand.”

CAPS also re-introduced the Well Ride program at the beginning of the fall semester, which provides free Lyft rides for students living on campus who are attending off-campus therapy. The program, which first started in the spring of 2020, was put on pause by COVID-19.

“We’d love as many students as needed to take us up on that, so that's a huge thing that we'll still be running in the spring,” Cook said.

Fisher said she contacted CAPS through email in the spring of 2023 and never heard back. She said she didn’t go to CAPS walk-in hours when she was experiencing mental health setbacks in the spring semester because she heard “very few positive stories of CAPS through friends.”

Fisher also added that she thinks a lot of students became “self-resilient” in trying to find their own means of support.

Aiden Spelbring, a senior psychology major and president of the UNC chapter of Helping Give Away Psychological Science, said he thinks some campus mental health resources such as CAPS have an unfairly "bad" reputation.

Spelbring said he thinks a lot of students come into CAPS with the expectation that they’ll be able to meet with a therapist weekly, but that the expectation isn't realistic due to funding and staff limitations.

The University could do a better job helping students understand what a CAPS visit will look like, he said.

Parents and other community members brought dogs, hugs and snacks to campus to support students after the shooting. CAPS stationed their services at two additional locations on campus — Student and Academic Services Building North and the Student Union — for several days following the first lockdown.

They also set up similar stations one day following the second lockdown. Cook said this effort was made to “meet students where they were.”

The Aug. 28 shooting additionally prompted faculty members to reflect on the mental health of graduate students specifically. 

Over 200 faculty members signed a letter sent to the Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on Sept 5. calling for the University to “immediately convene a task force to work to address the health and well-being of graduate students at Carolina." The petition is still taking signatures.

This spring, Cook said CAPS is looking forward to implementing new focus groups, including a multiracial support group, groups focusing on anxiety and ones for returning students.

“There are a lot of places to lean on that people don't always consider,” Spelbring said. “And if things arise, it’s never good to keep it inside, but always to go talk to someone.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com 

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