The administration at UNC – Chapel Hill commissioned the Mental Health Task Force in the spring of 2018 to address what is being described as “one of the most critical issues” being addressed in higher education across the country.
The task forced worked “to really examine the whole scope of the issue, what promising practices there are in this space and to come up with strategies that would work specifically at UNC – Chapel Hill,” said UNC – Chapel Hill’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs Christ Hurt. She and Erica Wise – who chaired the task force – presented the task force’s recommendations to the Board of Trustees at a meeting in late May.
“There has been a steady increase in rates of mental health problems and distress across campus and also increased requests for services,” Wise said. “Those have been increasing here and elsewhere.”
The discussion on the campus level in Chapel Hill came a week after the UNC System Board of Governors held a committee meeting discussing mental health issues on campuses across the state. The committee heard that rates of anxiety and depression were being diagnosed at a rate across the system that interim president Dr. Bill Roper called “sobering.”
“I think there’s a desire on everybody’s part to figure out how best to deal with the needs that these young people have and to do it most effectively,” Roper said. “It’s an ongoing issue.”
Chair of the system board Harry Smith said the mental health of students would be a top priority moving forward.
“I think that you will see the board move swiftly with the president to try to start working to address what is no doubt a significant challenge and issue for our 235,000 students,” he said.
Back in Chapel Hill, interim chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said mental health was a topic among top administrators at campuses across the country at a recent meeting.
“This is an issue that every university is dealing with right now,” he said.
At other universities that have had success helping students “it’s been about looking at unique programming around how to address and how to identify mental health issues among students, rather than just pouring a bunch of new resources into people and putting more counselors in place,” Guskiewicz said. “We’re going to learn from what other universities have done.”
Hurt said it is important to have buy-in at every level if changes are going to be able to be implemented quickly enough to meet the challenge on campuses in the state and nation.
“Everybody has a role to play in trying to figure out what solutions will work at UNC – Chapel Hill,” she said. “Again, there’s no blueprint that you can take off the shelf from one institution and just drop it here. We need to be co-creating solutions.
“And for that to be the case, you need to know what the students’ experiences are, and you need to know what the trustees’ commitments are moving forward to try to really figure out a path that we can all be on together as we create holistic solutions.”
The Mental Health Task Force in Chapel Hill is recommending the creation of a permanent committee on mental health and the implementation of ongoing assessments. Officials said continuing work to break down stigma surrounding mental health was an important piece and communicating with students about their options and strategies for maintaining their mental health.
The task force work was important to lay the groundwork for what the university should be doing moving forward, Wise said.
“The work is going to begin now.”