When USC Student Health was brought into the greater Keck School of Medicine system in 2017, 37 clinicians across the University Park and Health Sciences campuses were available as providers for more than 45,600 students.
Leading up to the opening of the USC Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Sciences floor in the Engemann Student Health Center in November, concerns relating to student deaths, the diversity of clinician staff and the greater mental well-being of the community were continually raised in forums with student leaders and administrators.
The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Sciences, led by professor and chair Dr. Steven Siegel, continually advocated for a way to refer students to long-term care without sending them through a maze of community providers and insurance guidelines, which is the national standard for student care at the university level.
After battling the usual institutional and bureaucratic obstacles that can impede progress, construction on the fifth floor of Engemann, a year in the making, finished early and is now home to 18 clinicians. This hiring, along with the addition of 30 more clinicians in Student Health, brings a total of 85 full-time clinicians who are available and dedicated to the care of USC students.
“I can’t impress upon you how extraordinary this is, from an institutional perspective,” Siegel said in a student media briefing. “I don’t know of any other place in the country that has put that kind of resources and support, let alone one that has been willing to nest it in the Department of Psychiatry and say, ‘This is so important to us that we’re not going to have it be separate. We’re not going to have it be outside the health system. We’re actually going to bring Student Health and a full dedicated practice for students in the department so that students have unfettered access to the highest quality care.’”
The changes come after students have noted long wait times and a required phone consultation to receive mental health services as barriers to seeking help at Engemann. In the past, students have had to wait several days or weeks in order to schedule an appointment with Student Health for their mental health needs.
With the 2020-21 school year starting in mid-August, the two practices saw almost 1,800 student visits in the month. According to Siegel, there are currently no wait times at either practice for individuals seeking out care, which has been of paramount importance to the department.
Kelly Greco, assistant director of Outreach and Prevention Services and clinical associate professor and faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, has overseen the project on advancing outreach services to meet the needs of communities on campus rather than in their individual members. Through embedded counselors introduced this year in academic departments like the School of Cinematic Arts and the Gould School of Law, and in cultural centers like La CASA and the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, these clinicians dedicate part of their week to offer their skills to the communities they serve and provide resources on coping with Zoom fatigue or seeing peers ignore public health guidelines.
“So we look at how we can go out into the community and reach individuals, especially, you know, in terms of addressing prevention, on decreasing the barriers, on decreasing the stigma, on increasing accessibility and just helping educate the community about resources, but also life skills,” Greco said. “And how do I cope with stress? How do I cope with COVID? How do I cope with the social political climate? Being online? Right, so we know there’s so many challenges right now that we’re all facing as a community.”
If students need greater care than what is provided by these embedded counselors, Greco referred them to clinical services on a short-term or group-setting basis, setting them up with psychiatric services within the USC system or in the community. For groups of students that are seeing greater separation from the campus, including international students, there are specific “Let’s Talk” workshops with times earlier and later in the day and those conducted in languages other than English to meet these needs.
One issue in particular that is labeled as a top priority of the department, along with the burgeoning USC Institute for Addiction Science and the Haven, is substance abuse. This focus is not just following the concerns of past drug-related deaths of students, but the increasing use of substances to cope with coronavirus-related fallout.
“We are actually recruiting and hiring therapists who specialize in substance-use disorders,” Siegel said. “We’ve made it our priority. And substance use in particular is going to be a focus of the department. Everything from, you know, media campaigns, how do we get messages out to enhance services available.”
Siegel also stressed the intentionality of the department’s hiring to meet the needs of the diverse student body. Over the past year, they have hired 50 new faculty members, with two-thirds being women, around half being people of color and one third being from marginalized communities, an initiative that he says is about “asking students who they want as much as what they want.”
While the outlook for mental health treatment may seem grim, with the pandemic increasing loneliness and stress along with instances of anxiety and depression among college students, both Siegel and Greco are confident that the department’s hiring process, which is still actively continuing, will equip the University with the resources it needs to better support its students.
“I expect moving forward, this is going to be a very, very different experience for USC students than has ever been possible before,” Siegel said.