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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: Mental health, deeper happiness and the University’s mission

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Supporting student mental health is not a new concern for UNC. The University’s 1789 charter — its earliest mission — is to “consult the happiness of a rising generation.” UNC’s founders believed that a good education isn’t just about sharing knowledge; our job is to help students build thriving, meaningful lives.

That’s the old-school definition of happiness. Not simply feeling good in the moment, but having a secure sense of belonging and purpose. Creating healthy relationships, serving a cause that matters to you, honing the skills to cope with difficulty — those things take time, and college is supposed to offer the space to make those big leaps into adulthood.

I was glad to see the special edition of student newspapers focused on student mental health published across North Carolina last month. Raising the alarm about rising rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness among young people is hugely important work, and it was heartening to see a focus on creative solutions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNC System has added tens of millions of dollars in counseling resources, after-hours crisis hotlines and expanded training to help students facing mental health challenges. Those investments make a real difference, and we’ll keep working to help those in need.

But it’s clear that improving mental health more broadly will require changes in the social, cultural and technological environment we’ve created for young people. The average teenager spends up to nine hours per day looking at a screen, so it’s no surprise that many students feel anxious, distracted and disconnected from real-world relationships.

Every minute spent doom scrolling is a minute you don’t spend sleeping, reading, talking to friends, going outside or preparing for class. Relentless exposure to the tragedies, outrages and social comparisons of online life can be deeply unsettling. That’s one of the reasons we’re banning some of the worst actors of the social media world — anonymous gossip apps like YikYak and Sidechat — from campus networks.

College is meant to build offline connections with friends, professors and mentors. It’s supposed to be a time for encountering new ideas, discovering new ways of living and reflecting on the values you want to live by. I remember how strange it felt when I first arrived in Chapel Hill as a student from a small town, how nervous I was about making friends and finding my way. It’s normal, rational even, to be anxious in the face of those big uncertainties.

It gets easier when you realize that everyone around you is in the same boat, struggling with the daily pressures and epic questions about what comes next. A healthy campus culture emphasizes those common bonds, and helps people find support in one another. A supportive environment helps us understand that the hard moments aren’t forever, that the struggles are a small part of a larger and more hopeful story. That’s the University I want for all of us, and it’s going to take all of us to build it.

— Peter Hans, president of the UNC System