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'Remember that you come first': University of North Carolina canceled Tuesday classes amid suicide investigations

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled classes Tuesday as campus authorities investigated two possible suicides within the past month.

University chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz made the announcement via email on Sunday, which was also World Mental Health Day.

"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," Guskiewicz said. "This crisis has directly impacted members of our community – especially with the passing of two students on campus in the past month."

The announcement adds: “After meeting with student and faculty leaders over the weekend, I am announcing a Wellness Day for our students on Tuesday, Oct. 12, as a step in addressing mental health. Classes will be canceled."

The dean of UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences sent an email to instructors Sunday night reminding them to offer flexibility to students.

UNC junior Kendra Randle woke up to the news that two students had attempted suicide, first through social media and then through the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. 

"There’s sometimes I can’t even put into words how I’m feeling and I’m just hoping the friends and families of those students are doing okay," she told USA TODAY. "I still am shocked, because no one prepares you for a suicide, you can’t ever be prepared for that, but it doesn’t surprise me that people are really struggling right now."

She's using her day off from classes to relax and check in with friends about how they're doing. 

"Just remember that you come first," is Randle's message to other students. "School is never that important to where it’s deeply affecting you."

UNC senior Emma Olson told USA TODAY that she was frustrated when she saw the school’s announcement arrive in her email inbox. She had learned about the suicides from friends and on social media before hearing from the university.

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“Honestly, I was quite angry because I watched people on social media beg the school to release a statement,” she said

The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on mental health and suicide prevention for teens and young adults, found that 63% of students say that their emotional health was worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic and 1 in 5 students have had suicidal thoughts in the past month.

Dr. Rebecca Kreitzer, a UNC public policy and political science professor, has noticed an uptick in mental health struggles among her students over the past year. 

"I am very concerned, especially as I talk to my students who have been struggling with anxiety and depression with the pandemic and the transition to school," she told USA TODAY. "Being exposed to the death of somebody by suicide can increase the rates of suicide."

The mental health crisis is an institution-wide problem, she said, but she feels like individuals are bearing the load of supporting students. 

"It also affects the mental health and morale of our grad students and our faculty and staff as well, who are taking on the burden of helping students navigate this space," she added. 

The university reported that 90% of its students were vaccinated, while only 54% of North Carolina is fully inoculated, according to state data. Olson believes the pressure of school, compounded with the pandemic, is contributing to a rise in mental health issues at the university.

She accessed the school’s mental health services her freshman year of college but was referred to an out-of-network therapist she couldn’t afford. 

Olson decided to withdraw from the fall semester to focus on her mental health and the high amount of pressure she felt from school and the pandemic.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.