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Transformational gift seeks to reduce the morbidity and mortality of suicide in patients seen across the UNC Health system and beyond.

Please note that this article includes discussion of issues related to mental health and suicide.

William and Dana Starling
William and Dana Starling

CHAPEL HILL — William (UNC ’75) and Dana Starling have made a $25 million commitment to the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry to create the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute. This gift will empower experts at UNC to offer innovative and compassionate care to patients in North Carolina while also supporting research to better understand the neurobiology of suicide and how it can be prevented.

Patrick Sullivan, MD, FRANZCP, will serve as director of the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute. The Yeargen Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Genetics, Sullivan is a world-renowned expert in psychiatric genetics and will lead a team committed to improving outcomes for patients dealing with mental illness.

Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan, MD, Director of the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute

“This is a critical situation,” Sullivan said. “Many measures of mental health are worse over the past five years. The bottom line is that at every level many people are struggling – rates of anxiety and depression have gone through the roof, and the impact on teens and their development has been especially massive. And one of the main red flags is attempted suicide and people who die by suicide.”

The UNC Suicide Prevention Institute will focus on three main components: causation and neurobiology, implementation of clinical prevention, and outreach, community engagement, and dissemination. The first is a longer-term research and development intention. The second aims to improve clinical outcomes at UNC Health in the short term and more broadly across North Carolina thereafter. The third will connect the Institute to individuals, community stakeholders, and other sites nationally and internationally, helping experts identify at-risk groups in the ever-changing landscape of suicidality.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, the Assad Meymandi Distinguished Professor and chair of the UNC Department of Psychiatry, said the Starling gift has the potential to change the landscape of mental health in North Carolina and beyond.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, UNC Department of Psychiatry Chair

“What I am most grateful for is that I believe a gift of this impact is going to transform the way we are able to deliver leading-edge care that will change the trajectory and outcomes for people who are suffering with mental illness and having suicidal thoughts,” Meltzer-Brody said. “The goal is that we will be able to develop both ways of predicting and clinical interventions – this is a partnership with scientists, psychiatrists and clinical teams using the resources of UNC Health to bring that together to identify who is at risk and clinically intervene to change outcomes.”

“We believe we will be able to develop a state-wide model that will also be a national model,” Meltzer-Brody said. “There’s nothing like this available, and this gift will be transformative in how we are able to deliver care that can eventually be exported across the UNC Health system and state-wide as a model of care.”

“Bill and Dana have my deepest gratitude for making this truly special commitment to help families who have experienced the deepest tragedy of losing a loved one,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Under the leadership of Patrick Sullivan and Samantha Meltzer-Brody, our experts at UNC Health and in the Department of Psychiatry are poised to make our University a world leader in research, education and care of patients and families dealing with mental illness. There is no more urgent need than this, and we are thankful to the Starlings for turning their grief into a selfless gift to the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute that will benefit many others.” 

The Starling gift was made in memory of the couple’s sons, Tyler and Gregory, both of whom died by suicide.

“Our two children are gone, and it’s important to recognize their wonderful, short lives,” William Starling said. “I’m not sure how else to better do that than to help other families who may be struggling with their own children down the road. We want to recognize our children, and this is a special way to do that.”

“It feels good to give back to a great cause,” Starling added. “The Suicide Prevention Institute is something that needs to be done – it’s a very high priority and it will go beyond just us or any one gift. Our world is full of so much uncertainty, and having some stability will hopefully help people in the future better cope with mental health issues. It’s a crisis all over the world, and Dana and I are very happy to be able to support this very important initiative.”

As an alumnus of UNC, Starling was especially grateful to connect with a global expert like Sullivan who was leading from Chapel Hill.

“Pat is an amazing individual,” Starling said. “After the tragedy occurred last year with our oldest son Gregory, I was able to meet with Pat and spend an hour walking across campus, which is one of my favorite things to do, and I got to know him really well during that time. I had a good feeling that what he wanted to accomplish was going to be groundbreaking and meaningful.

“We hope that starting this Institute will be a very important initiative, one that will not only help people at UNC but across the nation.”

“We are incredibly grateful to Bill and Dana for their commitment to such critical work,” said Wesley Burks, MD, CEO of UNC Health and dean of the UNC School of Medicine. “Their spirit of generosity in the face of overwhelming tragedy is an inspiration to all of us. This gift will allow UNC Health and the UNC Department of Psychiatry to lead the way forward at a time when we are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis.”

The Heels Care Network (care.unc.edu) is a hub for UNC students, faculty and staff providing mental health and well-being resources, including links to 24/7 support, training opportunities and suicide prevention resources. If you or someone you know is in crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988 or visit samhsa.gov/find-help/988 for immediate help. For additional information, visit the UNC Department of Psychiatry website at www.med.unc.edu/psych/.

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