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Alumni Magazine

Culture of care

University and College place an emphasis on wellness and mental health.

Colorful illustration of two stylized figures hugging symbolizing support for mental health.

Tragedy has struck NC State University and the College of Engineering during the 2022-23 school year. Fourteen students died during the academic year, including several in the College of Engineering.

Like many higher-ed institutions, NC State is working to support students and faculty and staff members through what the American Psychological Association has called a mental health crisis on campuses.

The University has inserted wellness days into the calendar. Classes are canceled and faculty members are asked to refrain from deadlines, while students are encouraged to rest and engage in activities that help them recharge. In addition to the NC State Counseling Center, which provides online and in-person services, as well as group therapy, the University has partnered with community providers and enlisted the help of other University of North Carolina System schools to expand counseling services for students. NC State has also invested nearly $400,000 in a partnership with AcademicLiveCare, a teletherapy provider, to provide free online counseling appointments for students.

NC State has created a Student Mental Health Task Force, which issued a report during the spring 2023 semester that offers short-term and long-term actions to help improve student mental health.

Meanwhile, the College has added two “embedded” counselors located closer to its students in hopes of making scheduling and attending sessions more convenient. It is also implementing other programs to encourage students to reach out when they need help and to support each other.

With current efforts, the College is focused on creating a culture of care where students feel as if they are seen and heard and that they have a community of support.

The reasons for this mental health crisis are complex, campus leaders say, but the disruption caused by the pandemic played a large part.

“As a society, we have to realize that this took a big toll,” said Angela Harris, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering who has done work on student mental health during her career and is implementing new techniques in her classroom. “We are going to be dealing with it for a long time.”

Comfortable and convenient

The Counseling Center has added a total of six new therapist positions embedded within NC State colleges this academic year. The two in the College of Engineering, Miranda Liu and Hannah Lavasque, are set up on Centennial Campus, where eight of the College’s nine academic departments are now located. Students can make appointments or take advantage of weekly drop-in hours. Hopefully, Counseling Center Director Monica Osburn said, as the two become more connected with the College’s student population, students who may be hesitant to ask for help will become comfortable.

That’s also the idea behind other College efforts, the Share Your Heart Campaign and the Safe With Each Other / Safety Pin Crew. Share Your Heart allows students to let a group of staff and faculty volunteers within the College know how they are doing and if they need support. Students are asked to put “Share Your Heart” in the subject line of an email and send it to a staff/faculty list so that someone can follow up. The Safety Pin Crew is a team of staff and faculty volunteers who wear a gold safety pin that signals they are available to talk with those who are struggling, feeling alone, feeling ignored or unheard, having trouble with a class, or simply want to chat with another member of the College of Engineering community. The Safety Pin Crew is deploying across campus during the semester to do in-person check-ins, and to offer a snack and encouragement as students navigate their day.

In February, the College offered two days of Mental Health First Aid training for staff and faculty members and an event on the University’s Feb. 16 wellness day where students were invited to come bond with professional staff, snack and chat. The event was scheduled for two hours. It lasted for five.

Missed time

The Counseling Center’s staff has more than doubled in the last few years, reflecting growing issues amongst the University community that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Most of the issues reported by the center’s clients are related to depression, anxiety and personal relationships. While the center’s professionals sometimes refer students out for longer-term treatment, most of the time they can help them develop the coping skills that they need to be successful and move forward in a few interactions.

For many of us, Osburn said, the pandemic greatly affected our ability to develop those skills. That’s especially true for young people, who learn much of this in high school and college or the workplace and who missed out because of the isolation during the worst of the pandemic.

Making up for that lost time will be difficult, but teaching students how to reconnect as they navigate a rigorous academic program during unprecedented times is part of the College’s current efforts, said Angelitha Daniel, the College’s assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. Particularly important is watching for what Daniel calls “transition times” such as spring break or the end of a semester, when students who are having trouble connecting may feel particularly alone.

Without this help, it becomes harder for students to thrive once they have completed their NC State degree.

“The reality for students is that you have to develop these coping strategies as you move into the corporate environment,” Daniel said.