Town hall addresses student health concerns

A panel of Engemann Health Center professionals, moderated by Dr. Alison Dundes Renteln (left) and doctoral candidate Nazli Senyuva (second from left), answered student questions from the audience regarding mental health services and increased transparency. 
(Sinead Chang/Daily Trojan)

USC’s Inter-Health Council hosted its first-ever Student Health Town Hall at Doheny Memorial Library Wednesday, which featured topics like mental health resources, training for inclusive health care and sexual health resources. The event was a student-organized conversation between students and Engemann officials that drew nearly 100 students, faculty and staff. 

Chief health officer Sarah Van Orman, co-medical Director Mildred Wenger, gynecologist Deirdre Logan and staff psychologist Kelly Greco made up the panel. Political science professor Alison Dundes Renteln and health communication lecturer Nazli Senyuva moderated the discussion. 

Inter-Health Council Inter-Club Relations Chair Yannie Hoang introduced the panelists and explained that the event’s purpose was for student voices to be heard. She also thanked the event’s co-sponsors, which included the Queer and Ally Student Assembly, the Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment, the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly and the Academic Culture Assembly. 

Mai Mizuno, a senior and an alleged victim of former campus gynecologist George Tyndall’s alleged sexual abuse, opened the town hall by explaining that students like her have lost trust in USC Student Health because of sexual harassment allegations that have come out in the past year. 

“I am not here today to point fingers or rail on the University … but to help provide a richer picture for our panelists as to why students are unwilling to believe words that are not backed up by action,” said Mizuno, who is majoring in international relations and philosophy, politics and law.

During the discussion, panelists took questions from the audience and from an online form that students could submit to before and during the event. 

Students expressed concern with mental health services at the University, such as long wait times for appointments and a low counselor-to-student ratio. Because of this, students said they are often referred off campus to receive treatment. They said they have to find ways to pay for transportation and other fees, and they are sometimes referred to clinics that are fully booked or no longer in business. 

“We agree 100 percent, and I agree 100 percent,” Van Orman said. “The number of staff that we had in our counseling and mental health services was not adequate for our students and what it resulted in was long wait times … and many students being told to go off campus.”

Van Orman said USC Student Health will hire 12 new clinicians by Fall 2019, bringing Engemann’s total to 35 psychologists and therapists. She said the Student Health Center will build a fifth floor by Fall 2019 that will house mental health services for students, so they can receive counseling and treatment on campus. 

“We are hopeful that by some time next year, students won’t have to be referred out of the University, that they’ll be able to be referred to a Keck Department of Psychiatry clinic right on campus, right in the Engemann building,” Van Orman told the Daily Trojan. 

Logan discussed some of the changes implemented to gynecologic visits earlier this academic year, including that all students receiving sensitive exams must be accompanied by a chaperone. Students going into these exams will also be provided a laminated booklet, currently available in English and Chinese that explain the procedures, Logan said. 

Logan also said Engemann faculty will undergo training to learn to work with people from diverse communities  to ensure that all patients feel comfortable. 

“Many of us don’t have the right terminology,” Logan said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “Many of us maybe don’t have the correct level of sensitivity, and we are working on bringing that training in for everyone.” 

Students also asked questions about submitting complaints regarding their Student Health experiences and transparency in seeing such concerns resolved. Wenger said that if students feel uncomfortable with their providers, they can leave anonymous feedback that will be reviewed and acted upon. 

“I feel really confident in the system we have, but we need to continue to look for ways to tell every patient how they can share a concern and then more importantly, continue to share what we do with those,” Van Orman said. 

Some students expressed that they were unaware of various services or new initiatives that the panelists discussed and suggested USC Student Health work to increase awareness among other departments, academic advisers and students. 

“There are many issues that students are having that we on the medical side are not aware of, and there are many things that we are doing on the medical side that students aren’t aware of,” Logan said. “Communication is key, and I think the more that we conversate and meet with one another, the better we’ll be able to move forward in a way that benefits everyone.”

Dundes Renteln took notes on students’ concerns during the meeting and said she and some of her colleagues plan to write a letter to University administration detailing urgent issues in the student community. 

“I think the faculty want to be like intermediaries or culture brokers,” Dundes Renteln said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We’re here to facilitate the conversation. It’s not for us to decide what should happen, but we want to help the students voice the concerns and help these new leaders handle this massive bureaucracy.”

Mizuno said she heard about many positive changes at Engemann that she didn’t know about before, but that more students need to be made aware of these changes. 

“Regardless of all these changes, what is the point … if students aren’t aware of them?” Mizuno told the Daily Trojan in an interview. “I think we need to continue to have these conversations so that students are aware of these different resources because ultimately … we have the most to gain and the most to lose from this.”