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'A force for good': Students prepare to be the next generation of mental health professionals


Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and mental health issues.

Ever since middle school, Julia Bondareva has noticed that they, along with the people around them, have faced challenges with their mental health, especially anxiety and depression. 

Now a UNC junior studying neuroscience and psychology, Bondareva is among the students currently working to become the next generation of mental health professionals and researchers.

As they grew up, they realized there was a larger issue, especially impacting people their age, which inspired them to look into the mental health field. When they took a psychology class in high school, they realized that this was the field they wanted to pursue. The class was the most interesting subject they had learned about yet, and Bondareva said they fell in love with how the subject facilitated human connection in a variety of ways. 

Younger generations uniquely struggle with mounting academic and social pressure, Bondareva said, which can exacerbate existing conditions or genetic predispositions for mental illness.

“I think that pressure really makes or breaks people,” they said. “Seeing that firsthand, in a lot of my friends and myself, first inspired me to be like, 'There's a problem and I need to learn more about it because this is not going to go away.'”

In a 2022 study published by the National Library of Medicine, researchers found that young adults aged 18-25 years old had increased anxiety and/or depression symptoms from before the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, 48 percent of the young adults surveyed had mental health symptoms, 39 percent of which received treatment with 36 percent reporting unmet counseling needs. 

Regular stressors, such as poverty or academic pressure, are worsened by unique issues — such as the recent rise in social media use and isolation as a product of the pandemic — young adults have faced in their formative years. UNC senior and UNC Chapter President of Helping Give Away Psychological Science Aidan Spelbring has seen this firsthand throughout his work and collegiate experience at UNC. 

Spelbring, who studies psychology and conflict management at the University, said he decided to step into the field of psychology because of a mixture of personal experiences and environmental factors.  

When he was a sophomore in 2021, at least three students died by suicide in the fall semester. Spelbring said he was deeply impacted by the idea that people in UNC’s community were seriously struggling.  

“I knew that I wanted to be a force for good and trying to combat that for people,” he said. 

While every student has their own reason for entering the mental health field, Spelbring said most students who pursue health service professions have been impacted in some way or another by the issues they are trying to work against.

Twenty years ago in 2004, 918 were enrolled in UNC's psychology and neuroscience program as of the tenth day of the fall semester, while clinical mental health counseling master’s degree didn't exist, according to UNC's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment

Last year, 1,534 students were enrolled in the University’s psychology and neuroscience program as of the tenth day and 24 in the clinical mental health counseling master’s degree program, showing an increase in student interest over the past two decades.

UNC senior Cameron Thomas is studying psychology, conflict management and cognitive science, and fell in love with the field in high school. Thomas said he thinks about mental health like an annoying roommate — while they're always there, the way you interact with them can change everything. 

"I'm able to organize the chaos that’s in my head and, ultimately, I feel better at the end of the day after sorting some of it out," he said.

The more students talk about and interact with mental health, the less stigmatized it becomes, Thomas said. At least at UNC, he thinks that a lot of young people are passionate about being a part of the solution, both in and out of the classroom.   

"I think people are definitely more engaged with the topic because I think it relates to everybody's lives," Bondareva said. "As time goes by, it's a growing field. We learn more techniques, we learn more about how to improve other people's lives."

Bondareva said even though people can get tired of hearing about mental health, it’s still important to learn about. They believe that there will be a point in most people’s lives where they will need to reach out for help and when that time comes, that people need to know how to take care of themselves more.

"Don't go through it alone, don't try to bottle it up, it's probably going to find you anyway," Spelbring said. "So, deal with it, talk to someone and do things that make you happy."

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Lauren Rhodes

Lauren Rhodes is the 2024 university editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant editor and senior writer for the university desk. Lauren is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and political science with a minor in politics, philosophy and economics.