This is an audio-journalism project I conducted during Spring 2019 at UNC-Chapel Hill. I interviewed students to gauge their mental health concerns while compiling them into an audio journal to be dispersed amongst the student body and demand better psychological resources for students within the administration.
On one of the first days of my Women’s Gender Studies 350 class, we were tasked with writing topics that were sensitive to us. These would be shared with the class so that we would start the semester knowing which topics were potentially sensitive to other peers. This activity taught me that every person has a story and that my peers deal with much more beneath the surface than I had anticipated. I found comfort in that thought, often feeling that I was struggling alone, and I wanted to share this idea with others so that they might find a sense of solidarity as well. I also hoped to show our faculty just how many UNC students struggle and might need a little extra empathy every once in a while.
I found the best way to share the stories of UNC students is through talking to individual people and allowing them to share their mental health stories from their lives thus far. I sent out many messages in groups of various interests (classes, year levels, sports, clubs, etc.) with the preface that I would like to hear their stories and use them to start a compilation of UNC students’ different mental health journeys. I encouraged them to reach out to me through text, call, or an anonymous survey I created. I asked the following questions: what is your family dynamic, diagnosis, when did they first notice symptoms, how this affects your every day if you feel UNC has equipped you to deal with mental health issues, and any other things they feel are important to their story. I met some people in person, received some texts, and compiled multiple survey responses (with their permission) into anecdotes that would tell their stories.
I wanted to begin the process of sharing these stories, so I had other students read these anecdotes and as a way to quickly double the knowledge and awareness of this project. I have recorded these anecdotes into an audio journal as a compilation of these students’ mental health journeys. Using an audio medium allows listeners to impose an image of a person they can best relate to onto the voice, making these stories relatable to the many diverse demographics on campus.
I ended up compiling 10 stories from students of various ages, origins, identities, and mental health journeys. One respondent was extremely passionate about bringing awareness to the stereotypes and symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, saying that “there are many types which can include cleanliness, rumination and intrusive thoughts, repetitive actions, and more…. People with OCD are capable of functioning in society like other people.… It may be difficult at times, but community often [is needed to help us] overcome our own behavior in order to live a life that isn’t dominated by our illness” (Respondent #7). The importance of community was a common theme stressed by all the students interviewed.
For one student, her mom and sister have helped her a lot in her journey because they are all “medicated for anxiety and depression so we kind of understand each other” (Respondent #2). Some students found great support in campus resources, especially ARS accommodations (Respondent #5). Four students expressed that UNC has good resources for its students, but that it’s really up to you to find the help. One sophomore voiced, “It was my personal drive to do better that really helped me go find the resources, but if I didn’t take initiative I could’ve very easily fallen way off track without anyone noticing or helping” (Respondent #3). Although there were positive responses, most students believe that instructors could try harder “to be understanding of individual struggles and the fact that we all can’t perform the same way” (Respondent #1). The most frustrating story I heard was from a student who suffers from anxiety. This student went to a CAPS evaluation session and was recommended to a support group when she directly expressed how she doesn’t do well in group therapy. After unsuccessfully trying medication, she decided to give CAPS another chance. But the therapist “acted like she didn’t really care like the only thing they care about is keeping the university’s suicide rate down” (Respondent #10). Students should not feel like their concerns are invalid unless they are at risk of becoming a statistic negatively reflecting upon the school.
Other students have tried to shed light on this issue through articles highlighting that 15% of UNC students rely on CAPS for mental health care (Lenzmeier 2018). However, UNC still struggles to meet the needs of this 15%, as CAPS director Allen O’Barr explains that they’re facing budget cuts which force the office to “focus on affording suicidal students same-day care” (Lenzmeier 2018). Seeing the large demand for these services, I wonder how many projects and articles are needed before the university will take this issue seriously.
The creation of this project was successful in assembling a comprehensive audio journal to enlighten UNC’s population about campus mental health issues. However, the most rewarding outcome was seeing that I was able to positively impact the lives of students I hadn’t met before and make friends along the way. The process of being interviewed and learning about my project sparked feelings of hope in these students, as I care about what they have been through and want to help create a safe space for mental health struggles on this campus. Using principles discussed in Mary Louise Pratt’s Arts of the Contact Zone, I have created a safe house for mental health concerns that were previously seen as taboo. Pratt highlights the fact that “groups need places for healing and mutual recognition, safe houses in which to construct shared understandings” (Pratt 1991, 40). In order to better support individuals with mental health concerns on this campus, there needs to be an understanding that this demographic exists in overwhelming numbers.
After hearing these stories, I find that my audience is UNC as a whole: students, professors, administrators, counselors, dining services staff, and all people who interact to make this place a supportive environment. If people from all levels are able to see that students are struggling, we will then be able to reevaluate how we offer support. This project also allows those with mental health concerns to see that they are far from alone and that even if campus resources are failing them, there are plenty of other people that understand. Even though we try to put up façades of being effortlessly put together, we all have rough days at Carolina, and seeing other people continuing despite their struggles is sometimes all we need to keep going.