With student mental health problems on the rise, UNC must do more to help, study finds

Faced with increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking among students, UNC-Chapel Hill needs to help reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care, a yearlong study has found.

The university also should make it easier for students to get help, including possibly adding a 24-hour helpline; and provide extra support for students who might need to take a mental-health leave from their studies and return later, according to the study.

The Mental Health Task Force, created last year, presented its 44-page report Wednesday to a committee of the UNC Board of Trustees at its meeting in Chapel Hill.

Erica Wise, professor and director of psychological services at UNC and chair of the task force, told trustees the university has a broad range of professional and student-led support services but they’re being overwhelmed.

The university has three big challenges, the task force found:

its decentralized structure means that similar services may be offered by several departments without one knowing what the other is doing, resulting in inefficiencies and making it difficult for students to navigate the system.

there is an array of informal services led by students, staff and faculty that the university is not taking good advantage of.

the current political climate on campus and across the country is having a psychological effect on some students.

Christi Hurt, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, who also served on the task force, told trustees, “Campuses across the country are working on this. We are no different.”

The report includes data from the American College Health Association’s fall 2017 survey of undergraduate students, which found that at UNC-Chapel Hill, 52% of students reported feeling hopeless, 69% felt very lonely, 71% felt very sad and 37% felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.

The survey also found that 60% of undergraduate students felt overwhelming anxiety and 38% felt overwhelming anger. Eleven percent had seriously considered suicide and 1.3% — more than 245 individual students — had attempted suicide.

The study found somewhat comparable numbers among UNC grad students reporting hopelessness, loneliness, sadness, depression and anxiety. The survey found 33 UNC graduate and professional students had attempted suicide.

Hurt said UNC is comparable to other schools across the nation in the incidence of mental health issues reported. When asked what might be the top priorities for the university on mental health care, Hurt said the first might be establishing a 24-hour support line. Most services are now available to students only during business hours, and Hurt said students often need nighttime help.

The report says that between academic 2012-13 and 2016-17, the number of triage appointments at UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services office increased 104%. The number of medication evaluation appointments increased 69%, the report says, and the number of academic intervention appointments increased 113%.

But the report says UNC’s counseling services office is not meeting national standards of care in some areas because it is understaffed, leaving counselors vulnerable to burnout.

Wise told trustees that UNC has an opportunity to become a national leader in helping students who need to take a leave from school to deal with mental health issues. Both undergraduate and graduate students need to be well informed about accommodations that can be made for them based on mental health challenges, as well as what the possible academic and financial ramifications are for withdrawing from school temporarily, the report says.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.