The fifth floor of the Engemann Student Health Center used to be empty. Now, complete with clean white walls, barren desks and empty cabinets, the USC Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Sciences floor will open its doors to students Monday. The floor, which is not yet fully staffed, will have one full-time psychiatrist, one part-time psychiatrist and four therapists ready to counsel and support students next week.
Steven Siegel, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, believes the floor will help students seeking mental health services.
“[The floor] is here really in recognition that seeking mental health services in the community is really difficult,” Siegel said. “And when you add on top of that how difficult it is to access mental health services to the fact that they’re widely distributed and it’s hard to get into, that doesn’t really fit into access for students.”
Siegel said it is difficult to find access to quality and affordable mental health care and the problem with health systems is nation-wide. He said that though USC is unable to control challenges that all universities and health care institutions face, establishing a special clinic on campus can help meet some of these needs.
“This was shell space — there was nothing here,” Siegel said. “The department worked with Keck Medicine at USC to come up with a plan for what would the idea look like.”
Nearly two years ago, Keck Medicine of USC approached the school with the idea of expanding facilities for students, faculty and staff. Over the past year, USC funded the construction of the fifth floor, which includes 18 counseling rooms, a group therapy room, nurses stations and a waiting room with a fireplace and a living wall of moss and plants.
This past semester, Siegel said Student Health has noticed an increased amount of students seeking support and counseling from the health center. In the last three months, at least nine students have died, and Siegel said the entire community has been impacted by this grief and loss.
“This is a pretty stressful time at USC, and that stress and that grief has an impact on people,” Siegel said. “We have had a dramatic increase in the number of people coming in for care and … it is difficult [because] you are trying to be here in the mothership and at home base … but we also need to be out in the community.”
While there have been calls from University officials and deans encouraging students to seek resources during these difficult times, the plan to expand mental health services on campus has been ongoing.
“A few years ago we started having this conversation … saying we want to do more for students,” Siegel said. “Over a year ago, space was dedicated and resources were allocated. And while this may seem like something that is just appearing at this time, almost randomly, this has been multiple meetings every week for well over a year. [We planned] who to hire, how to staff it, what the design should be and how many rooms there should be — all of it.”
The floor comprises three modules, or pods, each with their own rooms and stations. The floor will open up the first pod and begin seeing students Monday. Though the floor will begin with a soft rollout of staffing, Siegel said the department hopes to take its time to ensure quality care for students, while also helping new staff get acquainted with equipment and technology.
“We are actively recruiting and interviewing people with a plan to staff out the rest of this to be fully functional by the beginning of next year,” Siegel said. “And by August 2020, we hope to have the full place up and running.”
Currently, a concern among students is the lack of long-term therapy options on campus. While students may be able to seek counseling for a few weeks or months, long-term plans are not as widely available.
Siegel said that while one goal is to provide students with the long-term therapy that may have been lacking, the practice will also have to balance providing care to as many students as possible while maintaining the quality of that care.
“We have two goals: access and quality,” Siegel said. “And we’re cognizant that you have to be mindful of both. Yes, we are offering full-time therapy here, but also we believe in the idea that some people need long-term therapy and some people will be better served by a very focused plan of care … dictated by their needs.”
Additionally, students have been concerned about the wait times for booking an appointment at the health center. Robert Bacon, a junior majoring in health promotion and disease prevention, said while the health center provides great counselors for students to speak to, they can improve in other areas.
“They do a really good job when you actually get a session of being helpful, in my own experiences, of letting you know that they can talk about these issues over a longer span of time,” Bacon said. “But it is so difficult to get an appointment and they do kind of a bad job of not giving you other alternatives when you are still going through your issues.”
Bacon said while he was able to call his mom to discuss some ongoing challenges, not all students are fortunate in that sense.
“But not everybody has that so it is kind of unfair,” Bacon said.
Siegel said that while the model is not perfect, it will mature over the next six months. Students seeking support from the fifth floor will be referred from USC Student Health during the first few months of the floor’s opening.
“We’re committed to intakes, we are going to see patients, and among those students, many will still need to be referred to the community,” Siegel said. “And we will be referring a subset [to the fifth] floor — as many as we can. After the first six months, we anticipate that as we flesh out how this is working and what could work better and how are we triaging … We do expect there will be other paths in.”
USC Student Health fears students are unaware of the services the University provides. Siegel hopes students know they are able to visit the health center if they are in crisis or in need of immediate counseling.
“If you are in crisis, if you feel like you need help now — you will walk in and we will see you in person, right there, right now, today … It is not a new thing,” Siegel said. “And my fear is that people who are hearing that there is a three-week wait time, that is a three-week wait time for a routine intake for someone who would like to start counseling … but if you need care right now, walk into the third floor and we will see you today.”
Amber McKernan, a junior majoring in cognitive science, said she appreciates the health center’s ability to accommodate walk-in appointments.
“One time, I went in for an emergency counseling session, because they have those now, where you can walk in, and I think that part is great,” McKernan said. “The only issue was that I had to fill out a bunch of paperwork before I got the counseling session, so that was a little bit frustrating. Because I feel like if I walked in and needed emergency counseling, then I should receive it right there without having to go through the paperwork process.”
However, McKernan said she admires Student Health’s work toward providing students with more accessible and higher quality care. She has visited the health center for appointments and commends the University’s commitment to creating support groups for students. These therapy groups range in all topics from sexual identity to parental divorce to gender spectrum-related topics to relationships.
“I am currently in one of those support groups, and I absolutely love it,” McKernan said. “I have two people who mediate it, and they are wonderful therapists that both work at Engemann, so that is something I am very happy that they are doing because I think it’s good to know that other students are facing the same kinds of difficulties.”
Ultimately, Siegel believes the floor is a great first step toward alleviating any concern with USC’s mental health resources.
“It is just going to be a very small fraction of the need to start,” Siegel said. “That is not to say that it isn’t going to grow rapidly. But I do want you to understand that the first six months, we are going to be absorbing 10% of the referrals, and that is just a function of wanting to do this right.”