Education

Parents give hugs, TLC to UNC-Chapel Hill students in wake of suicides

Posted October 14, 2021 7:20 a.m. EDT
Updated October 15, 2021 5:47 p.m. EDT

— Parents gathered on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus Thursday to show their support for students after a challenging week.

One student died by suicide on Saturday morning, and a second student who attempted suicide on Sunday remains hospitalized. A second student suicide and another attempted suicide were reported last month.

Citing a "mental health crisis," Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz canceled classes Tuesday so students could focus on their mental health, and counselors have been available across campus since then for students who needed to talk to someone.

Parents added their support on Thursday. Wearing yellow shirts, they offered free food and hugs to weary UNC-Chapel Hill students near the Davie Poplar and had dogs nearby for petting to lower stress levels.

"With the deaths, it has just kind of added more stress and more worry for the students and us parents," event organizer Stephanie Ellington said.

"Their struggles [and] their worries may be hidden, so that's what we're here for," Ellington said. "[We want] to let them know that we're here not just today. We'll be here every day if you need just some type of assistance [or] some type of support."

Ellington and other relatives said they think students are especially isolated during the pandemic and hope their small gesture helps show the students that they are cared for and loved.

"[The suicides] actually made me contact her more," said Wilhelmina Pudol, whose sister is a UNC-Chapel Hill junior. "We’ve been actually messaging each other more about our mental health and think it’s just important that we stay on top of it."

An online petition with more than 2,000 signatures calls for more support from the university for student mental health.

"Right now, there's wait times of about three weeks to get a mental health appointment, and that's not good," said sophomore Jack Schweitzer, who knew one of the students who died.

"Having to deal with that has been hard," Schweitzer said. "It's hard to know it can happen to any of us, and we really don't know what someone's going through until it's too late."

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson said that UNC-Chapel Hill has a helpline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for students in crisis. For those seeking ongoing individual counseling, the average wait for an appointment is about one week, she said.

Readjusting to life on campus after spending almost all of his first year in online classes has been difficult, Schweitzer said. So Thursday's event was special.

"It's good to see we have parents who care, and they're willing to come out here and take time off of work to show students they always have a resource to go to – they can always reach out to a mom or dad or just anyone if you need it," he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill is trying to expand its mental health resources:

  • The Heels Care Network, a campus-wide campaign to promote and support mental health awareness, is underway
  • A mental health summit will be held later this month.
  • The Counseling and Psychological Services program offers assessments of an individual's mental health needs, short-term counseling and referrals for longer-term care.
  • The Multicultural Health Program focuses on the needs of students of color, offering individual and group therapy and outreach.
  • The School of Social Work offers an eight-hour Mental Health First Aid training course.
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