Students discuss USC mental health stigma

More than 80 students, faculty and staff members gathered at Town and Gown Wednesday evening to discuss their concerns with mental health stigma on campus, especially in light of the nine student deaths this semester. Undergraduate Student Government, Graduate Student Government and other campus organizations put together the community event, and prominent administrators such as President Carol Folt attended. 

Students have questioned how the administration handles student deaths and whether the University offers adequate mental health resources. The organizers of the event hoped to provide a safe place for students to communicate their concerns with mental health resources on campus and learn about new ones such as the Engemann Student Health Center’s fifth floor, which will open Monday to provide long-term psychiatric services on campus.

“A lot of people are searching for answers, searching for ways to support each other, a lot have reached out to me looking for ways to engage in different initiatives that are happening on campus, whether from USG or other departments,” USG President Trenton Stone told the Daily Trojan.

To ensure student confidentiality, faculty, staff and administrators left the event before the final hour, during which students had their own discussion on these topics.  

“It’s important to hear about resources, it’s important to hear from senior administration and see their support and commitment to try to make improvements,” Stone said. “But it’s also critical as a student Trojan community that we can come together and try to learn from each other, give their own perspectives and organically, really at the grassroots level, figure out how our student body can improve.”

Folt began the first part of the discussion by apologizing for the lack of communication from school administrators. She, along with Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni and Assistant Director of Outreach and Prevention Services Kelly Greco listed the efforts the administration has made thus far to combat mental health stigma, which includes their leave of absence policy that allows students to take as many semesters off without academically or financially penalizing them, along with the free wellness class available for students online. 

When faculty and staff left, students criticized limited on-campus counseling sessions for students that typically require students to seek treatment from outside practices.  

Ana De Oliveira Laub, a senior majoring in neuroscience, told the Daily Trojan the administration needed to better communicate student deaths to the USC community. 

“The administration is lacking in their efforts in communication with the student body. Transparency is clearly an issue that everybody is upset about,” Laub said. “But I think that … speaking up about your ideas, express your interest to be involved and your eagerness to help is what the student body can do right now, as well as making yourself available to your peers who might need help.”

 Laub also voiced a concern with the lack of 24/7 mental health hotlines and long wait times for students scheduling counseling appointments‚ an issue brought up multiple times by students during the forum. 

“If you’re at that point where you’re calling because you need help, you don’t have the patience to listen to elevator music,” she said.

Although Folt and other administrators cited a 50% increase in mental health counselors this academic year, students said there was a lack of people of color and LGBTQ  representation on the staff. 

Students also brought up the lack of empathy from professors when speaking with students about mental health. While fall break was meant to be a mental health break, students said many professors piled on assignments, projects and midterms before and after the long weekend. 

USG Vice President Mahin Tahsin told the Daily Trojan that the USG staff will work to implement ideas raised in the discussion to school administrators. 

“I think these conversations continuing to happen is so integral to sharing that perspective that everyone can collectively bring forward,” Tahsin said. “Whether it’s in big settings like this, or even little pockets could be so influential, and I hope that’s something people did realize out of the event as well.”