DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Amidst increasing concerns over mental health challenges, NAMI NC held its 39th annual conference at the Durham Convention Center on Friday.
"Mental health issues have existed as long as people have. But a lot of things just weren't talked about, and a lot of people suffered silently. The pandemic and its isolation really exacerbated a lot of things because people's normal coping mechanisms, which were largely social or sticking with a very predictable routine was no longer an option," said Amy Brundle, the Marketing and Communications Manager for NAMI NC.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death amongst North Carolinians ages 10-18 and has drawn increasing attention on college campuses.
"A little bit of grace from the administration, from professors, goes a long way in supporting our mental health," said NC State senior Mary Katherine Bennett, who works with NAMI on Campus.
Last academic year, seven NC State students died by suicide.
"In this day and age, there are so many roles a student has to play. You're a student, you're a worker, your classes have an online component so your professor can access you at any time. So you're constantly being bombarded with information and the news of these deaths certainly weighs very heavy on us," said Bennett.
NC State commissioned a special mental health task force, which led the university to implement several measures including 15 new mental health clinicians on campus, free telehealth services and more peer-to-peer support.
"When it feels more welcoming, it feels you're more open to share what you're going through and how you've seen your peers struggling," explained NC State sophomore Savannah Sheldon, who works with NAMI on Campus.
An hour away, Fayetteville State senior De'Nasa Townsend also work with NAMI on Campus; Fayetteville State is one of the first HBCU's to offer the program.
"Really stopping the stigma within our community to realize it's OK to have down days; we're not going to look at you any differently. Because everyone is human," said Townsend.
Friday's conference includes panels and breakout rooms featuring several topics, such as racially-based trauma, mental health initiatives in the Hispanic and Latino communities, substance use disorders and disability rights laws. Attendees believe the open environment and shared advice could have a positive impact.
"In the broader community, this is an awareness event. This is an event where 150, 175 people are gathering and saying 'this is an issue that I feel strongly about that; I'm giving up my day for that I think needs to be part of the greater conversation," said Brundle.
"I want to know what sorts of change that I can make as a college student, and I'm not going to be in college much longer, so I want to learn how I can use my platform to elevate change for people with mental health struggles," added Bennett.
Advocates say it's necessary to tackle existing barriers to improve access to treatment.
NCDHHS reports that roughly 1 in 5 North Carolinians will experience a mental illness, though in 2019, more than 55% did not receive treatment. To that point, there are nearly 300 fewer state psychiatric hospital beds available due to staffing shortages.
However, measures exist in the recently-passed state budget that could help address existing gaps. There's more than $700 million of behavioral health resource, funds which go towards workforce investments, integrated care, behavioral health rate increases, crisis systems, criminal justice and child well-being. Most notably, lawmakers approved Medicaid Expansion, which will go into effect December 1st.
"A lot of the problem that we see with mental health treatments all over the country is not that people don't want to get it -- it's that they can't. So eliminating any barriers between people without affluent means and basic mental health treatment (is greatly beneficial)," said Brundle.