Wellness Day Added to Spring Calendar Following Mental Health Summit


When Oct. 12, University Day, became a mental health day for campus, people wrote uplifting messages in chalk on the brick sidewalks. (UNC/Jon Gardiner ’98)

As UNC continues to address what one of its experts recently called a “mental health tsunami,” campus leaders announced adding a wellness day to the spring semester calendar and other measures aimed at mitigating the crisis.

The break on April 14 — when instructors may not hold class, administer tests or other assessments, collect papers or assign new work — was added to the time off already scheduled on April 15, Good Friday.

“We hope that students will take advantage of this extended break,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson said in their email Dec. 1 to the campus community. They noted that while the spring calendar could not accommodate more wellness days, they were looking to add several to the 2022-23 academic year. They also will be looking for ways to promote wellness for faculty and staff who will still work on April 14.

They also announced extending through November 2022 the Mental Health First Aid Training program offered by the School of Social Work, which equips individuals with critical skills to help others experiencing a mental health crisis, respond to substance use disorders and identify professional resources that can provide additional care.

The message acknowledged concerns that came out of the campus Mental Health Summit on Nov. 15, including students being waitlisted when seeking help from Counseling and Psychological Services.

“Many students expressed concerns about a waitlist at CAPS for individual therapy, and we wanted to share that the waitlist was eliminated thanks in part to a new telehealth service called Uwill, which specializes in mental health care for students,” the email said. “This partnership allows CAPS to connect students with either a CAPS or a Uwill therapist as quickly as possible.”

During the daylong virtual summit, students, faculty, staff and parents voiced concerns and diverse perspectives about an ongoing national crisis that has reached new levels during the pandemic.

Panelists shared concerns that came out of what one expert called a “mental health tsunami” created on campus by the COVID-19 pandemic, reported

The Well, the University’s news website for the campus community, said that in addition to the waitlist for CAPS, panelists said they were concerned about:

  • 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,” Guskiewicz said in opening 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 2 faculty/staff.

While the University scheduled the online summit because of concerns about student suicides early in the fall semester — which led to University Day on Oct. 12 becoming a wellness day with cancelled classes — 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

Summit co-host Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody ’03 (MPH), psychiatry department chair in the School of Medicine, said that 46.6 million Americans suffer from mental illness and 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 ’97 (PhD) and Employee Forum Chair Katie Musgrove ’15 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.”

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 Johnson, and Guskiewicz summarized key points from the day.

“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.”

More:Shades of Gray,” January/February 2021 Review.

Share via: