The pandemic created what one expert called a “mental health tsunami” on campus. At a daylong online Mental Health Summit on Nov. 15, panelists shared concerns from their groups:
- Students seeking help from Counseling and Psychological Services only to be put on a waitlist.
- Graduate students dealing with academic stress on top of pressures of working, caregiving and commuting to campus.
- Faculty being expected to teach and address the mental health of students.
- Staff coping with added stress of doing multiple jobs because of understaffing.
“As chancellor, a professor and a parent, my heart breaks for the suffering that goes unnoticed all too often on our campus,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz in the introduction to the summit. “The solutions to this crisis will not come quickly and easily. It will take a sustained effort.”
The summit was open to members of the Carolina community and drew 752 registrants: 502 staff, 157 faculty, 91 students and two faculty/staff. The program was recorded and will be made available more broadly with key stakeholders and friends of the Carolina community.
While the University scheduled the online summit because of concerns about student suicides this semester, summit organizers emphasized that it was also part of continuing response to a campus mental health crisis. In 2018, the University convened a Mental Health Task Force that submitted a report in April 2019 with nearly 60 recommendations, two-thirds of which have been enacted or are ongoing.
At the summit, the University announced next steps in addressing the crisis.
- Partnership with the JED Foundation and official designation as a JED campus in February. JED is a nationally recognized resource center that provides access to experts and will improve the University’s ability to prevent and respond to mental health issues.
- Future Mental Health Summit Seminars to address related topics such as faith, addiction/substance use, intimate partner violence and vulnerable populations.
- Upcoming Mental Health Colloquium in May 2022 to focus on crisis services, prevention and culture of care and compassion on campus.
A national problem
In her opening presentation, summit co-host Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, psychiatry department chair in the School of Medicine, described the scope of the mental health crisis. Meltzer-Brody pointed out that 46.6 million Americans or 20% of the U.S. population suffers from mental illness and that North Carolina ranks 42nd of the 50 states in providing mental health services for children and adolescents. Since most Carolina students are residents of the state, “this chronic lack of investment is contributing to where we are now,” she said.
“What is so humbling is that we thought it was bad then, and now we are faced with the situation we are in now, on this side of the pandemic,” Meltzer-Brody said. “The mental health tsunami that has come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic affects all of us in this country.”
The summit focused on the mental health of students and how other parts of the Carolina community can help support them. The longest morning session featured the voices of student government leaders, students involved in the Peer2Peer and Healthy Heels Ambassadors programs, student-athletes and a representative from the Latinx student organization Mi Pueblo.
Three key themes for undergraduates were unmet resource needs, publicity and perception of CAPS services and the need to mainstream mental health in academics, said Ethan Phillips, undergraduate student government’s director of student wellness and safety.
Phillips also recommended expanding access to faculty and staff training, such as the Mental Health First Aid Course offered by the School of Social Work.
“This summit is a great first step, but not the last step,” he said.
Melanie Godinez-Cedillo of Mi Pueblo spoke about the special challenges Latinx students face, from daily microaggressions to a shortage of Latinx representation in the faculty and staff and as mentors.
Neel Swamy, Graduate and Professional Student Government president, called for “frank conversation” and for the University to “adjust how we communicate what’s available.”
Carly Wetzel of the women’s soccer team advocated for increasing the investment for “underfunded and understaffed” mental health resources for students, especially student-athletes. “A waitlist is harmful. It could be fatal,” she said.
Faculty and staff voices
In the Faculty and Staff Voices session, Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman and Employee Forum Chair Katie Musgrove shared feedback they received through a mental health survey sent to employees, with 877 responses, representing 297 faculty and 580 staff.
In the survey, faculty and staff both indicated high levels of distress, with 85% of faculty and 84% of staff reporting being more distressed than usual. Sources of distress included workplace issues as well as increased caretaking, financial burdens, illness and loss.
“We need to ensure that staff and faculty are supported adequately with their own mental health and well-being as they are the key infrastructure upon which the student mental health well-being equation rests,” Musgrove said. “If the staff and faculty infrastructure doesn’t hold, the whole effort to improve student mental health will fall apart as a house of cards.”
The Well will have a more detailed report on the faculty and staff session later this week.
Prevention and next steps
In addition to serving as a venue for expressing concerns, the summit featured presentations on crisis services and prevention. To illustrate how mental health crises should be handled on campus, the presenters walked through a vignette in which a fictional student named Rameses experiences a mental health crisis and seeks help. An accompanying poll asked participants to choose what steps Rameses, his friends and others should take along the way.
In the prevention session, a panel of campus experts addressed the question, “What might a future-focused wellness promotion and suicide prevention plan look like for Carolina?” The session also included a poll on how the University can reduce academic stress and what wellness looks like in the workplace.
At the end of the summit, co-hosts Meltzer-Brody and Amy Johnson, vice chancellor for student affairs, summarized key themes of the day, and Guskiewicz returned for closing remarks.
“One important takeaway: This isn’t simply about adding more people; it’s about expanding the breadth of our programming and taking a comprehensive approach,” Guskiewicz said. “We will explore ways to make mental wellness resources easily accessible through many different avenues. We need to involve every part of our campus to ensure that students can find support wherever they turn.”