The news of two suicides and two attempted suicides at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill this fall semester sent shockwaves throughout the Carolina community. In an email to students, faculty, and staff, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced the cancellation of classes on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Students were given one day to reconcile the loss of their peers and grapple with their grief. Cancelled classes came just two days after World Mental Health Day, a day that raises awareness of mental health issues and aims to “mobilize efforts in support of mental health.”
As a Carolina student, I felt unheard and unseen. A day off of classes was not what we needed. Our community desired real change. We pleaded for an effort on behalf of the university to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.
In response, students came together not only to demand change, but to uplift one another in a time of need. A make-shift memorial in the heart of UNC’s campus was adorned with flowers and positive hand-written notes from students for students. Messages like “you are loved” and “you are worthy” were etched with chalk on the sidewalks, written on banners hung from student housing, and printed on fliers posted throughout campus. Students recognized the need to look out for one another and serve as beacons of positivity within a struggling community.
The UNC tragedy was not a stand-alone incident. A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that one in four individuals between 18-24 had considered suicide in June of 2020. It is clear that young adults across the nation are suffering from a nationwide mental health crisis. This conversation has become more salient in the wake of COVID-19, as students have reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. Juggling an online workload and the uncertainty of the pandemic has been an extreme burden to bear. Without system-wide responses from the colleges and universities that serve us, it is easy to feel alone.
How are colleges responding?
Discussions about the effects of COVID-19 on Americans’ mental health have caused some colleges and universities across the nation to take action. Many schools have ensured remote access to mental health services via telehealth, which has made seeking help in a virtual world a possibility. Others have set aside calendar days within the academic school year to give students a break from classes and deadlines in order to decompress. Hundreds of schools went a step further by partnering with local suicide prevention nonprofits to review and strengthen mental health policies.
On Nov. 15, more than a month after the tragedy that rocked campus, UNC-Chapel Hill hosted a Mental Health Summit. The university announced this initiative alongside a campus-wide campaign to increase mental health awareness. The summit was a day-long event with a variety of panelists, including Carolina students, departmental chairs, and clinical professionals. The panelists offered diverse perspectives in their discussions of campus culture, crisis services, and preventions. The event ended with an open-ended question: “Where do we go from here?” As we enter the start of a new semester, Carolina students are still waiting for the answer.
My college experience
After processing the tragedy at UNC this semester, I began to reflect on my own college experience thus far. College has been the most tumultuous stage of my life. Coming to college meant abandoning everything I knew: my family, my friends, and my home in sunny south Florida. Suddenly, I was thrust into adulthood in the blink of an eye, an adjustment that is difficult for anyone.
Though I loved the freedom I had to learn, I struggled as deadlines piled up for assignments that I was convinced defined my academic success. My parents and professors continued to encourage me to “find the balance” between my classes, mental and physical health, social involvement, and professional engagement. “Don’t stretch yourself too thin,” they would say. But, at UNC-Chapel Hill, it always felt like I was being pulled in opposing directions without an escape.
Midterms and finals became my nightmares. Every semester, I would dread the thought of failure and become queasy when confronting my workload. By my sophomore year I conceded that my paralyzing stress must be normal. At least I was comforted by the fact that I had established a routine to counteract the chaos of my first year in college. But, just as I had done so, everything changed.
The effects of COVID-19
I thought starting college out-of-state was an adjustment, but adapting to the changes in education that COVID-19 forced upon me was an entirely different story. All in a day’s time, my classes went online, I packed every last remnant of my college life, moved back into my childhood home, and started working part-time at the very same restaurant where I had spent my afterschool hours throughout my senior year of high school. The liberation of adulthood was robbed from me, and my new life as a college student became unrecognizable.
Taking classes online was less than ideal, and it wasn’t long before the effects of isolation started to manifest themselves. I longed for the opportunity to forge connections with professors and classmates, but social interactions in a virtual world proved difficult. Without any social stimulation, I struggled to motivate myself to complete assignments and study for exams.
Professors and UNC faculty continued to push the idea that to overcome these “unprecedented times,” we would have to come together. But, how was I supposed to rely on team perseverance when I was totally alone, miles and miles away from the campus that had become my home?
No matter how hard I tried, the nearly year and a half that I spent taking online classes was marked by significant learning loss and fatigue. And then, all of a sudden, I was being asked to revert to my pre-COVID-19 lifestyle as if nothing had happened.
The transition back to in-person classes
I was never able to truly understand my feelings toward returning to in-person classes in the fall semester of 2021. I am not even sure I do now. Though I was eager to enjoy the Carolina-blue skies that overlook our bustling campus, I had finally adjusted to online learning before once again being asked to completely redefine my learning habits and routines. The feeling of angst on campus was palpable as we took our first steps back into the buildings that had been collecting dust for the year prior.
It wasn’t long before I realized I had forgotten how to socialize with my peers, an effect of COVID-19 that I now know is not unique to me. Group discussions were awkward and intimidating, and as much as I wanted to form new connections, I could not get out of the social slump that had become my new normal throughout the pandemic.
Last semester, as I attempted to re-acclimate myself to an in-person education, refine friendships that COVID-19 had fizzled out, and re-engage with my surroundings, I continued to struggle with the anxiety that comes with being a college student. Ironically, though, my biggest take-away as a student during COVID-19 is that I am not alone in those feelings.
As the effects of COVID-19 on mental health became a more frequent topic of conversation, I began to identify the signs that I had been experiencing difficulties, though I had previously been convinced that naming my struggles was an admission of failure. I was not the only student feeling the effects of the pandemic, and acknowledging that provided me with some comfort. I am not the only one whose college career has been defined by moments of insurmountable stress. And most importantly, I know now that that stress and anxiety is not the inevitable fate of college students, as much as I used to think it was. Educational institutions have the capacity to reverse that narrative, and it is time that they do so.
Where do we go from here?
After the tragic events at UNC-Chapel Hill last semester, it is of utmost importance that educational institutions do not just enforce the idea that students are not alone, but actually make them feel like that is the case. A few days off from class is not enough to make a difference in a student’s life. Neither is inundating students with pro-mental health messaging without providing real support.
Colleges must engage with their students and understand the sources of their stress so that they can be properly remedied. Importantly, on-campus counseling services should be accessible and equitable, such that students can seek and receive help whenever needed. Though it seems like we have made it to the other end of the pandemic, we cannot ignore the long-term effects COVID-19 has had on students. Now is a crucial time to start putting the mental health of students at the center of the conversation.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.