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Telehealth program helps UNC-Chapel Hill meet demand for mental health services

Posted October 29, 2021 8:13 p.m. EDT

— Weeks after suicides by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students prompted administrators to cancel classes so students could have a day to focus on their mental health, the university has launched a new program to boost services to students.

The UWill program, which started Monday, is a telehealth service that expands student access to licensed therapists.

“This was a way of sort of bringing on some extra resources to be able to meet the needs of the students, not only in terms of volume but in terms of time," said Avery Cook, associate and clinical director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC-Chapel Hill. "Our therapists here work on a more traditional schedule, and this allows for students to be seen in the evening or early in the morning – times that might work better for their schedule."

CAPS was overwhelmed by the demand for mental health services as students returned to campus this fall after most spent the last year and a half in online classes during the coronavirus pandemic. The program had to create a waiting list for students who needed therapy, and officials said the wait averaged about a week.

"We knew coming into this semester we were going to have a really heightened need for services beyond what staff might be able to manage," Cook said, adding that UWill eliminates the waiting list.

CAPS, which provides a 24-hour crisis line, has 16 full-time and two part-time counselors and has added a social work fellow to keep up with demand. The program also is trying to hire another two full-time counselors and some temporary counselors.

"There’s always going to be a need for more resources. We’re always going to advocate for more staff, of course," Cook said.

The UNC System awarded more than $981,000 in grants to 12 of its campuses – each received $50,000 to $100,000 – to increase behavioral health capacity and strengthen mental health resources to students this fall. Last fall, the system opened a crisis hotline to students, and about 300 use it each month.

Student Simon Palmore said feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression during the pandemic can sometimes be too much to bare.

“When you add that on top of the general really heavy load of expectations that we put on ourselves and that other people put on us, especially at a competitive university like this one, it becomes a stressful environment,” Palmore said.

The suicides this fall only added to the anxiety, he said.

"Seeing it play out in real time is truly awful,” he said. “I think that a lot of people are very badly bruised, in a metaphorical sense, from these events."

"We need to make sure that we are thinking of the current mental health concerns as a university issue, as a worldwide issue, as opposed to just a counseling issue,” Cook said.

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators are finalizing details of a mental health summit next month.

“I think the university has done some good things in recent weeks, in terms of trying to alleviate the waitlist and trying to provide more resources for students," Palmore said. "But the important things to think about are the long term."

In addition to CAPS or UWill, students in need of mental health assistance can turn to Student Wellness or the staff in the Dean of Students office. Faculty and staff can contact the university's Employee Assistance Program.

Anyone in need of immediate assistance can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting START to 741741.

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