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The Daily Tar Heel

Editoral: Elected officials must do more for mental health


Gov. Roy Cooper and First Lady Kristin Cooper announce their election victory on the steps of the N.C. Democratic Party headquarters in Raleigh on Nov. 3, 2020.

This op-ed is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

More than 1.6 million adults in North Carolina struggle with mental health issues, per data released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in 2022.

However, 2022 data from the Bureau of Health Workforce and the Health Resources and Services Administration shows that only around 13 percent of residents’ needs are met.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in North Carolina for people ages 10 to 18 and is the third leading cause of death for those ages 19 to 34, according to data collected by the NCDHHS.

Universities in North Carolina are seeing these numbers manifest in real time. In the 2022-23 academic year, seven N.C. State students died by suicide. Too many students at UNC also lost their lives to suicide and mental health related issues — including but not limited to the deaths at UNC in fall 2021.

Despite this tragedy that campuses across the state are facing, the funding to public universities for mental health resources that could prevent these issues has lagged. Due to a lack of meaningful policy, it seems our North Carolina legislators do not view the mental health of their constituents as a priority. 

In the Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Act of 1985, North Carolina outlined the importance of a lack of discrimination for people with mental health needs. However, the bill does not require funding to support people with mental health related issues.

While there are plenty of polarizing issues that divide our state along partisan lines, supporting mental health is a bipartisan issue. Everyone in North Carolina, regardless of party affiliation, deserves greater access to mental health resources — which can only be achieved through increased funding.

The state budget allocated millions of dollars toward various initiatives like expanding Medicaid, investing into collaborative care, catering to mental health in the workplace, and improving accessibility throughout the state. While there is considerable work being done across the board and the overall budget is being divided between numerous areas, universities were barely mentioned in the last budget. 

In February 2023, Gov. Roy Cooper announced $7.7 million in mental health funding for post-secondary institutions. The UNC System, alongside the North Carolina Community College System and independent colleges and universities, put these funds toward bolstering services implemented via the governor's previous $5 million grant for mental health from 2021.

This funding was intended to provide training in suicide prevention and continuing access to a mental health landline across the 17 institutions in the UNC System.  The previous investment helped the UNC System launch Mental Health First Aid training that produced hundreds of certified instructors that provided support for students across North Carolina outside of the flagship system. 

In contrast to the governor’s action, the state legislature has not contributed significantly to a system that needs more than what Cooper allocated.

For one, an enormous portion of said mental health funding is being used to train staff on how to identify and refer students to on-campus help, likely because this money is split between multiple institutions. Funding is stretched thin and therefore has to be utilized sparingly, often resulting in well-meaning but short-term solutions that lack stability. 

At UNC, student fees are more responsible than state funding for keeping Campus Health running.

As of the 2023-24 academic year, "auxiliary and other trust funds" carry most of the financial burden at approximately $26 million, as opposed to the general fund, which covers state appropriations towards the upkeep of these facilities, at only $168,000. Our student fees fall under the first category.

As of the 2022-23 academic year, UNC’s campus health fee was $205 per semester for students, covering most basic health services. Currently, UNC offers a spate of resources to help its students with mental health related issues, through the Heels Care network or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

While CAPS offers access to short term counseling and a 24-hour crisis hotline, the service is not able to provide students with long-term care. Most of UNC mental health resources within and outside of CAPS refer students elsewhere, forcing them to rely on exterior services instead of the on-campus assistance they may be expecting.

What’s worse, when students are referred outside of CAPS, they join the growing competition for the few mental health professionals in the state. About two in five people in North Carolina live in an area that is facing a shortage of mental health professionals.

With increased funding from the General Assembly, we wonder if CAPS could increase its bandwidth and help students internally for more than a few visits. 

UNC currently lacks the resources and services needed to provide their students with optimal mental health aid and treatment. Many universities ranked as the happiest across the country by the Princeton Review have an abundance of mental health services available to students, often for free. In Kansas, grants exist which focus on expanding practitioner training to cover more issues and monitoring the amount of therapists available.

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While North Carolina and UNC specifically both struggle with a shortage of therapists, larger grants provide a potential solution. Implementation of such services at UNC would be exceptionally beneficial, but we think the University and ultimately the entire UNC System needs more funding from the state before that can happen.

Expanded service options and additional specialized professionals within the University itself would better suit the diverse needs of the student body. These improvements would mitigate the extensive stressors presented by the daunting task of finding an adequate care provider, which can often include obstacles regarding insurance, personal finances and other personal burdens. 

Alleviating issues like community violence and student safety begins with mental health. It is essential that our legislators commit to representing their constituents by addressing the lack of adequate funding towards improved mental health services as well as their accessibility. 

Solving the mental health crisis cannot begin until there is an intersection between politicians and people. The acknowledgement and widespread access to mental health resources, both on campus and in the state of North Carolina, must increase if we are to improve the crisis.

@dthopinion |