UNC system administrators, faculty and leaders gather to discuss students mental health

Tuesday, March 21, 2023
UNC system leaders discuss mental health of students
Amid the ongoing crisis in mental health affecting students, UNC System President Peter Hans said it's not only a campus issue, but a society-wide phenomenon.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness and the crisis is also being felt on local college campuses.

Hundreds of UNC campus administrators, faculty, student leaders and mental health providers gathered at the Friday Center to talk about the work done on UNC system college and university campuses.

The five NC State student deaths by suicide this year were on the minds of many who attended.

"Anytime that you lose a student, it's a difficult time but it's even harder when a student chooses to take their life. And so having this conference allows us to talk about suicide because the more you talk about it, the more we shed light on and you've got to talk about it to figure out ways we can help students. And so here today, we've had a lot of presenters talk about the signs and symptoms of someone that might be in distress," said Bethany Meighen, UNC VP for Student Affairs.

Amid the ongoing crisis in mental health affecting students, UNC System President Peter Hans said it's not only a campus issue but a society-wide phenomenon.

"Unfortunately, this issue has existed for a long time," Hans said and added the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it.

His address to the hundreds of campus leaders gathered on Tuesday in Chapel Hill comes as universities like NC State deal with the loss of at least five students who died by suicide in the 2022-23 school year.

"Those students that we lose, most of them, the vast majority of them, have not availed themselves of resources on campus," Hans said.

The UNC System was awarded $7.7 million from Gov. Roy Cooper's Office which vice president for academic and student affairs Dr. Bethany Meighen said will go towards the launch of 11 projects that include on-site case managers, high-quality remote care and a suicide intervention program.

"We need the words to be able to tell the student, I'm worried about you," Meighen said. "I think people still think if you say suicide, that's going to trigger something. It doesn't trigger it. We want to reach out to the student that's too scared to tell us."

UNC student Siena Perna shared her experience as a mental health chair of her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, listening to her sisters about their struggle with mental health.

"In a campus so big, it's really easy to feel lost," Perna said. "I think coming out of Covid too, learning how to learn again was really, really difficult."

Perna said students are under a lot of social and academic pressure.

"People are expected to study 4-5 hours a night, but also sleep, but also go to class, and also have fun," Perna said.

Emma Carroll, she said she's getting better at asking for help in her first year as a freshman.

"Honestly the thing that's helped me the most when it comes to being able to ask for help more has been when other people have asked me for help," Carroll said. "It makes you realize you're not the only one who might be feeling this way, or who's needing assistance."

As UNC rethinks its approach to supporting students, there's a push to focus on its rural locations.

"It's really hard to recruit in rural areas," Meighen said. "So we have post-docs that live in the residence halls that are living with the students delivering care. That helps Pembroke, Cullowhee, all these places recruit really top-notch postgraduate students who are trying to get experience."

"Students often feel isolated, students often feel like they're not a part because of the diversity challenges that we have with age, gender and race," said Terry Ward who is an education consultant.

Students were also able to talk about their concerns.

NC State is now recommending wellness days and screening students for mental health risks, among other suggestions.