At a time when the need for mental health resources on college campuses is more pressing than ever, USC’s student health center is looking to fix two of its most critiqued shortcomings: outside referrals and long wait times for counseling.

Over the past two years, USC Student Health hired 12 new mental health providers; a 50% increase in their staff. This sets the stage for the opening of a new fifth floor at the Engemann Student Health Center in November. The addition will function as a private clinic run by the department of psychiatry that will provide long-term care for students in need, which USC did not offer in the past.

“It’s a huge achievement to be able to bring a lot of services under one roof,” said Minnie Hong Ho, executive director for communications and marketing at Engemann.

The hope is that these new initiatives will cut down both long wait times for consultations as well as the number of students that are referred to therapists off-campus. Engemann believes these new resources will allow more to get the help they need.

Historically, 70% of students who reached out to Engemann for mental health aid have been referred to therapists outside of campus.

This was primarily because the ratio of professional clinicians to students at USC was 1-to-1,800; well below the quota recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services (IACS). The IACS recommendation is commonly accepted as the gold standard for mental health support at universities.

With new staff, USC’s ratio now meets the IACS quota at 1 professional per 1,000 students. While this only refers to students eligible for campus healthcare, Engemann believes these improvements will inspire students to get help.

“Once we make a connection from that request, that’s actually a curative event,” said Dr. Robert Mendola, lead for student counseling at USC Student Health. “Asking for help and then receiving a response is effective treatment.”

Traditionally, students have been quick to criticize USC Engemann for how difficult or confusing it is to get assistance. While there are a variety of resources students can access on campus, those struggling with mental health sometimes feel divided: often the situation isn’t so dire that they have to reach a crisis hotline, but they know they need a resource.

This can lead them to the MySHR Portal, an online pathway for students to request an appointment with a counselor. To do so, users must first schedule a phone consultation, which is usually scheduled days, and sometimes weeks in advance.

Joyce Jang gave up trying to make an appointment at Engemann Health Center after the only available phone consultation was too far in the future. (Photo by Dan Toomey)
Joyce Jang gave up trying to make an appointment at Engemann Health Center after the only available phone consultation was too far in the future. (Photo by Dan Toomey)

Joyce Jang, a junior who currently works as a Resident Assistant, faced the same problem when she sought out help freshman year. She gave up finding an appointment altogether, fearing she would reach a dead end since the only available phone consultation was too far in the future.

“I was like, ‘do I want to wait three, four weeks to make a phone call...and then be referred out?” Jang said.

Phone consultations are pre-scheduled calls where students speak with Engemann staff who ask a series of questions to determine whether or not a student needs mental health counseling.

Sometimes this can lead to a student being set up with an on-campus counselor. Often, however, students are referred to an off-campus therapist sometimes located miles away. These referrals are usually given either when the wait times to see someone on-campus are too long, or when a student’s case is determined not to be severe enough for immediate help.

Kiara Sanford came to USC as a 24-year-old transfer student. Sanford, having been previously diagnosed with a mental health issue, approached Engemann for help. The student, who identifies as they and them, was referred to a list of therapists off-campus after it was settled that they needed long-term care, which the university couldn’t provide at the time.

“Especially if you’re a transfer student or a freshman and haven’t been on campus very long, you’re just gonna say, like, ‘forget it, I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing and hope it works out,’” Sanford said. “And that’s what I did.”

Two months after foregoing the list USC provided, Sanford suffered a breakdown. Sanford was admitted to the hospital and entered crisis counseling soon after.

“It did not work out,” Sanford said.

In other cases, students have had positive experiences with USC’s counselors, but only after going through a tedious process of being seen.

Keanu Concepcion graduated last May from the School of Cinematic Arts and was initially referred to an outside counselor in his sophomore year. After struggling to schedule an appointment, he decided against therapy and moved on.

“I think finding help is one of the hardest things you can do,” Concepcion said. “You’ve taken the time to reach out...and then all of a sudden they’re kind of kicking you out.”

By his senior year, he reached out again and was able to see someone. This time, the school made an exception: a counselor met with him for the long-term given his particular needs, which he still looks back on as a formative experience.

“I was fortunate enough to have such a severe problem and such a caring therapist,” he said. “They’re there to remind you that your experiences aren’t trivial.”

Now with a revamped staff and new facility going into the new year, Engemann will try to make these positive encounters more common. Counseling appointments this fall are already up by 45% - a sign that students’ calls for help, while still growing, are at least being met.

Others, however, aren’t so optimistic about Engemann shaking its reputation as understaffed and unreliable.

“I think at this point the issue is so much greater than the wait time,” said Roma Murphy, a senior majoring in screenwriting. “Right now the common idea at Engemann is, ‘you can’t trust them, they’re not going to help you.’”

Murphy believes that, in addition to focusing on resources from the student health center, USC should look at its culture as a campus for inciting mental health issues.

“USC emphasizes achievement a lot,” she said. “I think it’s easy to buy into that idea, and I think that leads to that sense of purposelessness.”

Nevertheless, Mendola hopes that the new improvements will change students’ perspectives about what Engemann can provide.

“If you ask the (student) population, 70% would say, ‘all they do is refer you out,’” Mendola said. “Communication is always the stumbling block.”

“The goal is to create what I keep referring to as a caring community,” he said.