Students form mental health support group

Trojan Support is led by a board of directors and 15 trained student volunteers. (Photo courtesy of Drew Hodis)

A USC student support group will launch in October to serve as a supplement to the Engemann Student Health Center’s counseling services.

In August, the center announced it would implement changes to students’ mental health needs by adding 10 new therapists, an effort to reduce the staff counselor to student ratio. But even with more staff and an updated policy, Trojan Support believes it can branch the divide between students’ hesitance in reaching out to Engemann health professionals and the crucial resources they need.

“It takes time out of your day and there’s a whole stigma behind going to talk to professionals,  especially with the recent issues at USC with Engemann,” said Trojan Support vice president and head of volunteers Gabrielle Van Der Velde-Kraft. “Not everybody trusts the school and wants to talk to someone at the professional services.”

Trojan Support President and Founder Armand Amini decided to create the organization after realizing the need for a peer group for those uncomfortable with seeking professional help.

“[I wanted to provide a space] for individuals who want to speak with someone their own age [who] they can actually relate to at a similar time in their lives [and] they can feel comfortable [with],” Amini said.

The process to become a school-approved support group had its challenges.

“In the first year or two, almost everyone shut me down immediately,” he said. “I got really, really discouraged. Those first five or six months at the end of the semester, I’d almost given up.”

The University hesitated to get involved to avoid potential liabilities, Amini said. Trojan Support worked with the health promotion strategy staff of USC Student Health. Health Promotion Specialist Andrea Moore, who was involved with advising Trojan Support, said that the group needed to shift its focus towards offering support, rather than counseling.

“The state of California has very specific legal meaning behind if you were calling yourself a counselor and you were providing counseling to other students,” Moore said. “We wanted to provide them with something that would help them become supporters of their peers but not necessarily counselors.”

Tania Tsao, Trojan Support’s head of student care, will handle the concerns of volunteers and ensure they are offering services according to protocol.

“We are expecting certain cases to be more serious than others and require a lot more caution when dealing with student information,” Tsao said. “[We want] to constantly find new ways to improve our services as well, but I think that comes with time and experience.”

With those mechanisms in place, the organization was approved by Chief Student Health Officer Sarah Van Orman, who became an advocate for the organization from that point on, said Van Der Velde-Kraft.

“I think that this organization would not exist without [Van Orman’s] help because of a lot of liability reasons and all of that,” Van Der Velde-Kraft said. “We needed their support throughout the entire process, and so because of Van Orman, it’s actually going to be an organization.”

But even with support, the organization faced months of delay by not having enough staff, Amini said.

Trojan Support began recruiting volunteers, even though they hadn’t received full campus approval. The group found 400 students that were interested, interviewed 40 and narrowed it down to 15 volunteers.

“We’re looking for individuals with high emotional intelligence … We’re looking for diverse people,” Amini said.  “We wanted to have a group that represented USC itself and want all people … to be comfortable coming in.”

Over five days, including 12 hours of Certified Peer Education training, volunteers were trained to approach a range of scenarios — from alcohol abuse to suicidal ideation.

“I think it was a pretty solid crash course on diversity, mental health stuff like suicidal ideation [and] body image issues,” Tsao said. “It covered a large range of common mental health issues that happen within the higher education community.”

Speakers from Engemann and Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services came in to go over what they’ve seen on campus and in their own office to give the volunteers added preparedness for what to expect, according to Van Der Velde-Kraft.

Student Health Services may continue to support the organization in the future in the form of additional training depending on its success. While Trojan Support is a recognized student organization under Undergraduate Student Government, it is not directly sponsored by Engemann, Moore said.

“[Trojan Support is] recognized as a student organization and we were able to help with the training and getting them speakers,” she said. “Student Health doesn’t certify or sponsor student organizations.”

Trojan Support is currently focusing on spreading its mission to students and campus groups.

Once they open their doors, Trojan Support will welcome walk-ins and appointments. Students can schedule a session online and make specific requests if they want a volunteer who can speak to their individual experience. Students who walk in will be accommodated as soon as someone is available to see them.

“If someone wanted to talk to an individual that has been dealing with similar issues, they can always request that,” Amini said. “We’re not going to represent everything ever, but we’ve done our best to be able to talk about a wide range of potential issues.”

For issues that are beyond the capacity of peer support, the organization can refer the students to see a professional.

“We can’t replace [professional] counseling,” Van Der Velde-Kraft said. “We can help people and point them in the right direction and talk with them, but we aren’t official counselors, so I think that’s the big distinction to make.”

Editor’s Note: The headline of this article was updated at 4:16 a.m. PDT.