Following up on a long-awaited promise, USC’s Engemann Student Health Center is opening its new, fifth floor dedicated to long-term therapeutic services on Monday.
The addition will open on Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. Reporters were invited on Thursday to tour the floor and it’s 18 new counseling rooms, group therapy space and reception desk for scheduling appointments. Entering in the lobby, guests are met by with by sprawling “living” wall of artificial plants that extends into a waiting area cozied by a T.V. and fireplace.
Despite repeated calls for better mental health care services, plans for the floor were relatively unknown to the student body.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Leyaly Mansi, a junior studying chemical engineering. “I hope it’s more widespread that it exists.”
For the University, plans for the development have been a long time coming.
“We recognized even a few years ago that one of the biggest challenges was for students to find really high-quality mental health care [that is] easily accessible in LA,” said Steven Siegel, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.
“Rather than trying to fix the nation’s broken mental health system...there was an institutional decision to build a special clinic right here on campus to meet the needs of students,” he said.
The new floor will be staffed by four therapists and two psychiatrists - one of whom will work part-time. USC aims to triple those numbers by August 2020.
“We are actively recruiting and interviewing people with an accelerated plan to staff out the rest of this to be fully functional,” Siegel said.
USC students have often critiqued the Engemann Health Center for its lack of mental health resources. Horror stories of being referred to off-campus therapy or being asked to wait multiple weeks for phone consultations has branded the Center with a reputation for being unreliable and understaffed.
Engemann aims to change that with this new floor, as students have noted.
“It’s probably the feedback and criticism that they’re responding to in trying to provide long-term care,” said Anya Kushwaha, a senior studying global health and non-governmental organizations and social change.
Getting the program started, however, will be an incremental process.
“Nothing like this has ever really existed,” Siegel said. “And we recognize that there will be things that we learn as we go.”
For students, this means that only a select number will receive the initial long-term care options offered during its first few months of opening - absorbing about 10% of students that are currently referred to outside therapists now. A team of staff members will select those students based on the severity of their conditions.
Referrals for therapy will also be made through the Student Health Center until the new floor can integrate students into its own online database, which will be a time-consuming process, according to Siegel. As more students register, and staff numbers grow, services will expand accordingly.
“We’re going to take as many people as is safe and appropriate,” Siegal said.
Overall, Siegal highlighted that this form of care is a new and top priority for USC’s medical staff moving forward - following a trend across universities of prioritizing student mental health.
This is an acute issue on USC’s campus this semester, as 9 students have died over the course of a few weeks, spurring a series of notices sent from school officials regarding suicide and drug use.
These losses, following a string of other scandals that have tagged to USC’s name over the past few years.
“I do think there are specific factors that are exacerbated by the climate at USC,” Kushwaha said. “Specifically, the lack of transparency in response to so many scandals that have happened.”
As a result, students have sought mental health care at an unprecedented rate.
“This is a pretty stressful time at USC,” Siegel said. “We’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of people coming in for care.”
To meet this demand, Engemann increased its staff by 50% over the past year by adding 12 new mental health professionals to their team, although the new floor is their flagship initiative.
While the outcome of this is yet to be seen, however, Siegal stressed that pre-existing resources on campus still exist for students in need.
“We could say that our wait time is zero days,” he said. “If you feel like you’re in crisis, if you feel like you need help now, you walk in - it’s not a new thing.”
By expanding therapeutic resources, however, the hope is that students will develop an understanding of what’s needed for them at a personal level.
“Yes, we’re offering full-time therapy here,” Siegel said. “But we also want to be leading the idea that...some people will be better served by a more focused plan of case.”
This mindset will help Student Health differentiate between which students need short-term and long-term care. Short-term, which Engemann has only been able to offer in the past, usually consists of 12 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. Long-term could extend beyond that, but may not be necessary for everyone.
“But that will be dictated by their needs, not by resources,” Siegel said.
As the school continues to pour more resources into mental health care, Siegel emphasized that the larger, complex issue of mental health for college students stretches beyond USC.
“I don’t know that there’s a good alignment between what many people would like available to college students - broadly, across the nation - and what’s actually available,” he said. “We’re trying to address the gap in mental health availability that is a much bigger issue than just Engemann.”