Days after professor killed on campus, UNC faculty want mental health task force

A growing number of UNC-Chapel Hill professors are calling for a task force to address the mental health of graduate students, a request brought on three days after the “senseless loss of a colleague” shot to death on campus.

The request refers to Tailei Qi, the 34-year-old charged with murder in the fatal shooting of his academic advisor Zijie Yan, as a “seemingly-struggling doctoral student,” and it pointed to a mental health epidemic in higher learning.

“We hear directly from many students who we supervise in laboratories, in research, and in classrooms that they are struggling — psychologically, physically, financially and academically,” said a statement circulating around UNC, signed first by psychology and neuroscience professor Keely Muscatell. “Graduate students are the lifeblood of universities... For all they do, we owe them our support for the mental and physical well-being.”

The basis for Qi’s depiction as “seemingly-struggling” was not immediately clear, but this is the second reference to mental health issues in Yan’s applied physics lab.

Earlier this week, Doug Chrisey, Yan’s former academic advisor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute posted a Facebook tribute to his former student, including this exchange:

“Yan mentioned to me in our last correspondence how one of his graduate students had a mental health problem causing delusions and he hoped he could graduate quickly and remain stable. He let his Department know of the situation. Graduate School in science research is a different kind of hard. Students feel great pressure and it often is mired in failed experiments or rejected manuscripts like the above. I wish people like Yan’s student could get the help they needed - a statement of the obvious.”

Yan was shot Monday afternoon inside Caudill Laboratories, sparking a massive search and campuswide alert that had many students locked down for more than three hours. UNC has transformed into a place of mourning since, with classes canceled and expressions of grief large and small.

By late Thursday afternoon, the call for a task force at UNC had 25 professors’ signatures. It refers to UNC’s own research, published in 2022, showing long-simmering mental health concerns grew worse on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic and racism protests of 2020.

A similar 2022 study conducted over 373 campuses showed more than 60% of students met criteria for at least one mental health problem, up 50% over the previous 10 years.

“We recognize the recent tragedy cannot be reduced solely to graduate student mental health,” the text of the petition says. “Clearly, change must be made in many directions, at all levels. What we as a university have the power to do in the here and now is address the needs of our graduate trainees.”

Addressing mental health on campus will take funding and openness to change, the text states, but the campus can benefit from its own experts in the relevant fields.

“We encourage the administration to make use of us,” it adds. “We are prepared to help.”