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Student’s personal journey leads to a passion for mental health care

Second-year MSW student Andrew Heil doubts he would have chosen a social work career had it not been for a clarifying moment during his undergrad years at Carolina.

“I was struggling with depression toward the end of my first year here, and I ended up being hospitalized for one week,” Heil said. “That experience really ended up being a blessing next to the wound because from that space and from my own understanding of pain and despair, I discovered that I may be able to connect to other people’s stories of suffering and strength.”

Heil applied for and was accepted to the School of Social Work in 2013, shortly after graduating from UNC with a double major in Italian and philosophy. He also earned a minor in social and economic justice, a focus born largely out of his personal journey and work with Interactive Theatre Carolina, a group that uses original scripted and improvisational material to encourage discussion and education around health, wellness, and equity issues.

Heil, who graduates in May, is now eager to pursue a professional path in community mental health and to work directly with some of the oppressed groups he’s spent the last several years educating himself and others about.

“It took a while to understand that what I really wanted to do was social work,” he said. “I finally realized that what I needed was a career that inspired me and made me want to get out of bed every morning. What I knew was that I care, I can help and I know how to listen. Yeah, that will get me up every day. And that’s where that social work groove kind of comes in, not to mention that we do have that political, moral commitment to fight injustice in our micro and macro practice.”

Heil further honed his social work skills this year as an intern with Carolina Outreach, which provides mental health services to nearly a dozen counties around the state. He serves on an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, which provides intensive case management and therapy to people with, for example, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Because many clients have severe needs and challenges, including co-occurring substance use disorders, the team offers 24-7 wrap-around interdisciplinary care and works to meet adults where they are, including in hospitals, in jails and on the streets.

The experience has taught Heil a lot about North Carolina’s most vulnerable residents.

“Some have been hospitalized 15 times, but the strength and resilience they have is really phenomenal,” he said. “I really feel I’m learning from them because they have a wealth of expertise in terms of navigating the system and about mental illness and about what it is and what it does to you and how it affects your life.”

Heil’s passion for mental health earned him a bit of distinction this year: selection as a Hugh MacRae Morton Jr. Scholar. The Morton award is given to students who are interested in direct practice with clients with mental illness.

“This scholarship means that we have people out there who also share a commitment to giving the best care to people who need it the most,” said Heil, who plans to practice in North Carolina after graduation. “It’s comforting to know that we have donors funding this kind of social work and investing in the fractured and complicated system that is the mental health system.”

For more information about fundraising priorities and the impact of private giving at the School of Social Work, please contact: Mary Beth Hernandez, associate dean for advancement at (919) 962-6469 or