UNC deals with mental health concerns in wake of student suicides

ByDeJuan Hoggard WTVD logo
Monday, October 11, 2021
UNC students, faculty say psychological center needs improvements
Students say it can take up to three weeks to talk to someone at UNC's counseling and psychological services department (CAPS).

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina -- It's been a challenging past few weeks on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill as the school deals with the recent death by suicides of at least two students.

Mental Health Resources

Campus leadership made the decision, specifically Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, late Sunday evening after speaking with other members in administration to cancel classes on Tuesday, encouraging students to use the day to focus on their mental health.

"We felt Tuesday was the better option," said Guskiewicz in a Monday afternoon Zoom meeting with other campus staff and leadership.

"We hope this is not just a response to a crisis, but a move toward more preventative care...and hopefully come up with a better plan moving forward," said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin.

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"I think they are trying but it kind of seems like a bare minimum response to me," said sophomore student Annalise Zola. "I think the response was a little delayed in that they could be funding CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) better and doing more to support our students."

Currently, students and staff who contact CAPS often have to wait at least a week before speaking with a live person.

Some students of UNC Journalism professor Deb Aikat said there's little he can do to assist students when the wait is that long and in some cases longer.

"Three weeks is like an eternity when you're dealing with mental health issues. You need to talk to someone immediately," Aikat said. "It's stressful for all of us. And for a younger mind it's even more stressful and they are trying to handle it all alone. They are away from home. They have their friends. But if their friends are in a bad situation also; all of them suffer. And they have to also suffer in silence."

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson said there have been no budget cuts to CAPS and the primary reason for any wait times is some staff turnover, consistent with the healthcare field right now across the country.

"CAPS has recently started a waitlist for individual counseling appointments for the first time in 14 years - only for those who want ongoing individual counseling appointments," said Johnson. "The average wait time for scheduling ongoing individual counseling appointments is approximately one week. The primary reason is that CAPS has had some staff turnover, consistent with what is happening in the healthcare field across the country. We are currently hiring several permanent positions, as well as adding some short-term, temporary counselors and pursuing a telehealth counseling contract. Once this happens, we are optimistic we will not need to use the individual counseling appointments waitlist."

During Monday afternoon's meeting, campus leaders said the idea of adding wellness days to the 2021-2022 school calendar was not widely accepted by leadership and faculty, and would have resulted in a longer spring semester.

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"There are no free wellness days," said Blouin. He went on to say in Monday's meeting that additional wellness days would mean the spring 2022 semester would be longer. Additionally, such a move would require university leadership to let officials with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools know of the calendar revision; especially during the reaccreditation process.

""I feel, respectfully, that our university leadership should have thought about it in August," said Aikat. "This is not a fun situation and we need to take care of it. And I'm confident we will. But, you have caught us in a very bad place."

"I encourage anyone experiencing mental health needs to reach out and ask for help, I want every student at Carolina to know they are not alone. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is continuing to conduct initial assessment appointments, emergency appointments, group sessions and community referrals for all students. To be clear - there is no waitlist for students who reach out to us in crisis, and our helpline is available 24/7," said Johnson.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)