After two on-campus suicides in just one month, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled Tuesday classes, acknowledging the school is in the midst of a “mental health crisis.”
The last-minute decision was announced Sunday night, after student leaders demanded a chance to grieve and reflect over the recent student deaths.
“We are in the middle of a mental health crisis, both on our campus and across our nation, and we are aware that college-aged students carry an increased risk of suicide,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a letter to students and staff at the school late Sunday. “This crisis has directly impacted members of our community—especially with the passing of two students on campus in the past month.”
“We are facing major challenges and the ongoing toll this takes on our health cannot be underestimated,” he added.
The cancellation of Tuesday’s classes fell short of demands from student leaders since half the day’s classes had already been called off for “University Day,” an annual celebration commemorating the school’s history.
Student body President Lamar Richards pushed back on the single-day pause on Twitter, blasting teachers who refused to cancel classes on Monday as well.
“If you are a professor requiring a class to meet tomorrow you are part of the problem,” he wrote on Twitter late Sunday. “We are not machines with on and off switches. I don’t care what ‘you’re not allowed to do.’ We are students and we need a break.”
The class-free day comes amid police investigations into a series of suicides since the start of the fall semester.
Last month, the UNC Police Department uncovered a body at the Forest Theatre that was deemed a suicide, according to campus police data posted online.
On Friday morning, campus police reported a 911 call about a suicide at Hinton James Residence Hall, which was followed by yet another call about an attempted suicide early Sunday morning at Granville Towers South, the log shows.
Katelyn Campbell, 26, a fourth-year Ph.D. student who teaches an American Studies class to undergraduates, told The Daily Beast on Monday that the university had been sluggish to communicate about the student deaths.
Campbell said she held an “optional” class on Monday to provide a space for students to come together and said students had expressed they were “really frustrated and angry” about what she described as “a lack of care from higher-ups within the university,” to address pressing mental health issues.
“Socially reintegrating after nearly two years of being isolated— people are reaching their breaking point—which is obviously what happened this weekend,” Campbell said.
She suggested that a lack of funding for counseling services and turnover among staff may lead students to “fall through the cracks.”
“It seems like their staff are pretty overwhelmed and students have a hard time finding a therapist on campus and ultimately end up having to go off campus for care a lot of the time,” she said.
A series of high-profile exits among faculty of color, including New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, have also rattled the school in recent months, Campbell said.
UNC-Chapel Hill senior Brooks Fitts, 24, told The Daily Beast that many of his peers have been upset in the wake of Jones’ departure and dissatisfied with administrators since the school convened for one week before going fully remote last fall with “virtually no mental health support at all.” The pause to classes just for Tuesday didn’t help, he said.
“Personally, I’m kind of down, I don’t know why we still had class today,” Fitts said. “I don’t know why they’re still holding a celebration Tuesday, it just kind of seems in bad taste.”
Student government leaders on Sunday had appealed to school officials for a pause to classes beginning on Monday until the end of the day Tuesday, suggesting an urgent need to grieve and “to ensure that their mental health needs are being considered and met.”
“All university actions should be guided by the expertise of Carolina’s mental health professionals and we request transparency from the university as to the implementation of this guidance,” UNC Undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Government wrote in a joint letter. “A loss of even one Tar Heel is one too many.”
In lieu of classes, Tuesday has been designated as a “Wellness Day” and students are encouraged to rest, reflect, and check in with each other.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.