Academic Culture Assembly’s (ACA) latest event for Mental Health Awareness Month captured the unfortunate irony defining mental health issues on college campuses today: most students were too busy to show up.

The ACA talent show was held at Ground Zero on Thursday, World Mental Health Awareness Day, to promote mental well-being and help students de-stress.

There were four performances during the hour-long show, featuring rapper Clarence the Kid, a capella group UnderSCore, improv troupe Spoiler Alert and singer/songwriter Stephanie Lawrence.

The a capella group UnderSCore performs at the ACA talent show. (Photo by Andy Chen)
The a capella group UnderSCore performs at the ACA talent show. (Photo by Andy Chen)

Though concerns and the conversations surrounding mental health on college campuses continue to grow, the majority of audience seats in the former milkshake hub were empty.

Of the 30 students in attendance, nearly half were slated to perform. That number dissipated even more throughout the night as students left after their act. About 15 or so remained by the night’s end.

“I wish there were more people, there was a lot of talent here that I really enjoyed,” said Aaron Valencia, a sophomore majoring in health promotion and disease prevention, who is also a part of the Academic Culture Assembly (ACA).

Valencia recognized that busy schedules and the onset of the midterm season may have impacted turnout.

“It’s also that a lot of people have a lot of other priorities,” he said. “Not to say that mental health isn’t a priority to them, there’s just so much going on around our campus.”

Following their performance, both Lawrence and Speares critiqued the school over the availability of resources and communication issues on campus surrounding mental health.

“There are significant movements among students, but as an institution, I think the University is kind of falling short,” Lawrence said in an interview.

Over the past two years, USC Student Health increased its number of staff members by 50%. In November, they are slated to introduce a new private clinic run by the department of psychiatry that will provide long-term therapy, which the health center hasn’t offered before.

These efforts demonstrate a push by the school to provide better mental health resources for students. Communicating this has been difficult, however, as Engemann tries to shake a reputation on campus as unreliable or understaffed. In the past, the Health Center referred almost 70% of student patients seeking therapy to off-campus providers.

When asked about the night’s attendance issues, both performers noted that students have schedules filled with homework and other activities that bar them from attending events such as those scheduled by the ACA. Advertising for the event, they also said, was limited.

“I found out about this literally 10 minutes before it started,” Speares said.

Speares and Lawrence also commented on a broader student culture that conflates genuine discussion about mental health with sarcasm. Posts on fake personal Instagram accounts, or “finstas”, and other social media platforms, are the most common platforms for this. Often, they provide users a more personal space than their public accounts, which allows them to make more confessional, intimate posts.

“Saying, like, ‘RIP’ or ‘I want to die,’ like that’s so commonplace,” Lawrence said.

“I think people mask it with irony,” Speares said. “It prevents other people from engaging, it prevents you from understanding what’s going on, except that you make edgy jokes.”

This apathy is something Valencia acknowledged as well.

“I think a lot of people overlook it until it affects them directly,” he said. “It’s something important...and that’s why we’re going to keep doing it.”

The musicians of the evening also tailored parts of their performances to match the event's theme.

Stephanie Lawrence performed her last song which touched upon her own feelings of frustration and mental exhaustion.

“The ups and downs come back around, the cycle of a smile and frown, it never ends...until I say I’m through,” she sang, accompanied by sophomore Akela Speares on guitar.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been stressed out,” Clarence the Kid said before entering a rendition of his unreleased song, “Kyoto.” He named the song after the Japanese city to promote a message of tranquility and peacefulness.

With bars confessing the rapper’s stresses of juggling college and life as a budding musician, Clarence rapped about the need for self-care above a booming instrumental playing from his iPhone.

“Give validation to your own experience,” he rapped - an apropos message for USC’s student body at a time where mental health in college has never been more analyzed and prevalent. For those in attendance, it was one that resonated. Whether or not that was the case for the rest of the student body, however, is still unknown.

ACA has six other events scheduled for Mental Health Awareness Month. The next is a service event on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.