With talk of suicide gripping USC this past year, there’s an under-covered element in the conversation that sends out a distressing signal about student mental health.

In the Fall 2019 semester alone, school records show there were 49 USC students who were held in a hospital for their own protection after authorities were alerted they might be a danger to themselves or to others.

This is an increase from previous years. 2012 saw 29 psychiatric hospitalizations in the entire year. There were 52 student psychiatric hospitalizations in all of 2018. As of Fall 2019, USC is on track to having the highest number of student psychiatric hospitalizations since 2012 -- the first year of records available.

Despite this massive increase, descriptions of the conditions surrounding these individual hospitalizations have diminished.

Screenshots from DPS Daily Crime and Fire Logs (DCFL) between 2012 and 2019. Source: https://dps.usc.edu/alerts/log/
Screenshots from DPS Daily Crime and Fire Logs (DCFL) between 2012 and 2019. Source: https://dps.usc.edu/alerts/log/

These incidents are often classified in the DPS Daily Crime Log under the catch-all tag “SERVICE,” often providing no further explanation beyond the standard line of “Summary: A student was transported to a local hospital for psychiatric care.”

It is often unclear what the circumstances of these psychiatric hospitalizations may be — something that is particularly worrying given the severity of the mental health issues these students could be facing.

On Sept. 13, for example, there were two psychiatric hospitalizations in 24 hours: One in on-campus student housing at 10:36 pm, and the other at 1:33 a.m. in the Lorenzo Apartments, an off-campus housing complex. While DPS declined to comment on individual cases due to privacy concerns, officials said they’re aware that psychiatric hospitalizations are on the rise.

“It’s not unusual for us to respond to multiple calls in a day,” said USC’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) Assistant Chief David Carlisle. He added that due to the rising number of “students in distress,” DPS is adding two more people to its Crisis Intervention Unit (CIU) team who are specifically trained to manage mental health crises.

Two officers currently make up the entire CIU team. The staffing additions are expected to be made by January.

The average psychiatric hospitalization, according to Carlisle, comes after a relative or friend requests a welfare check on a student who might be in danger.

Screenshots from DPS Daily Crime and Fire Logs (DCFL). Source: https://dps.usc.edu/alerts/log/
Screenshots from DPS Daily Crime and Fire Logs (DCFL). Source: https://dps.usc.edu/alerts/log/

“The student may be depressed, they may have stopped attending class. The student’s initial statements lead to a mental health evaluation, at which point someone at the Counseling Center will ask whether they would like to be transported to a local hospital for further treatment,” Carlisle said.

The typical hospitalization is a 72-hour hold where students are stripped of everything from their phones to the drawstrings on their pants to stop them from harming themselves or others, according to Jonathan Singer, Ph.D, LCSW and President of the American Association of Suicidology. Singer, also an associate professor of social work at Loyola University Chicago, believes they may offer people a safe haven that is a lifesaving layoff from the breakneck pace of daily life.

“Psychiatric hospitalizations typically are short-term and focus on solving a problem, and their usefulness depends from person to person. If someone’s off their medication, this is an opportunity to get them back on it. If they’re having a suicidal crisis, they’re under 24-hour observation. But to others, it’s a restrained environment that makes them feel like they’re being punished,” Singer said.

Most psychiatric hospitalizations at USC are distinct from 5150 holds, which are typically involuntary and involve the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU), according to Carlisle.

It’s impossible to know from the information DPS makes public which of the calls it responds to may have been attempted suicides, according to Carlisle.

When asked whether student suicide attempts also fell into the “Service” category, Carlisle said that there were no hard and fast rules. The classification is entirely at the discretion of the officer on call, who “may not have made it clear that it was an attempted suicide,” according to Carlisle.

“When someone calls an officer for service, that officer writes a determination on what should be done about the event. This is then radioed over to the disposition dispatch or entered into the computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) system, which generates a record that is put into the Daily Crime and Fire Log (DCFL) by the record manager, who is responsible for creating the DCFL,” Carlisle said on the process.

When asked whether he believed DPS should have a responsibility to reflect all student suicide attempts accurately for the purpose of informing the community, Carlisle cited privacy concerns and potential HIPAA violations as a reason to deliberately keep the logs nebulous, despite the fact that they do not contain any identifying information.

On the other hand, Singer said he believes that it might not necessarily be enough to just report the numbers of these incidents as they happen.

“Forty-one students transported to a psychiatric facility doesn’t tell us anything. Does that mean forty-one lives saved, or forty-one instances where the university failed to intervene? The question is, who made that determination to hospitalize and how does that then loop into student resources? These numbers without context are not valuable and are likely to make students panic,” Singer said.

Some at USC believe that crisis management is simply not enough to solve USC’s issues with mental health. Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at USC, says a bottom-up approach to mental health where the school prioritizes coping resources over crisis intervention, might hold the key to creating positive change that lasts.

“There is a lot of focus on ‘downstream’ interventions that address students in crisis, such as counseling. While this is critical and urgent, and while we should keep expanding our counseling resources every year, I think we miss an opportunity if we're only thinking downstream,” Soni said.

He said his own work in campus wellness is focused on “upstream” possibilities that he says are proactive instead of reactive. He said that his work attempts to “support, empower, and inspire students so that they have the tools, techniques, and perspectives to mitigate stress and anxiety in their lives.”

If it works, he said, “our hope is that we can reduce the flow of students in crisis downstream.”

But amidst mounting academic pressure at school and elsewhere, some students can’t even find the time they need to commit to their mental health– something that is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly common among young people.

“My main struggles with mental health have been dealing with debilitating stress and anxiety outside of the generally expected treatment cycle of therapy/long-term care,” said SunHee Seo, a junior at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA).

Seo believes that the USC administration needs to show students it’s committed to treating mental health as a human issue rather than a public relations one.

“It feels like USC’s approach to mental health is all about their reputation right now, and that they don’t really care about their students. At SCA especially, it’s always ‘Look at what all your successful predecessors did. What will you do?’” Seo said in an email to Annenberg Media.

But Seo’s struggles at USC aren’t just limited to the culture at SCA.

“I’ve always been able to handle the heavy workload, but for me the issue has always been the hustle culture at USC –– the feeling that you need to be doing 5,000 things to be successful. It always seems like other people are doing better than you are. It’s really easy to see other people in the arts who are also pulling crazy hours, and a crazy workload, and they seem to be doing okay. It makes me feel bad for not being okay,” Seo said.

In email after email in the wake of recent student deaths, the school has continued to assure students and parents that they’re aware of the situation.

But messages from the administration were still vague about the causes of the deaths, because “in some cases, the cause of death is still undetermined, and in others, the loved ones do not want details disclosed,” President Carol Folt wrote in an email to the student body in November.

“There is a great deal of speculation about the causes of these deaths and most are being

attributed to suicide. This is not correct,” she wrote in the same email.

USC officials also told the Los Angeles Times that “A campus of 47,500 students, USC experiences four to 15 student deaths in a typical school year...[In 2018], six were reported.”

There are attempts from the administration to improve mental health at USC between the new psychiatry wing on the 5th floor of the Student Health Center and the implementation of a new fall break for students – but students like Seo believe these changes don’t go far enough.

USC Engemann Student Health Center. (Photo by Sareen Habeshian)
USC Engemann Student Health Center. (Photo by Sareen Habeshian)

“I had a midterm and an essay due the Monday after fall break – what’s the point of a ‘break for mental health’ if you can’t even destress?” said Seo.

The break, which was implemented in Fall 2019, is intended to “support wellness and to promote an environment that provides the best opportunities for success at USC,” according to a memo from the Provost’s Office.

USC’s lack of transparency surrounding mental health isn’t just an on-campus issue. Reporting on suicides on college campuses across the nation is patchy at best, and the data surrounding attempted suicides is also scarce.

In 2018, the Associated Press asked the 100 largest public schools in the United States to report suicide statistics. Only 46 of them had consistently tracked suicides, and only 27 had done it since 2007. Because of the inconsistency in responses, The Associated Press did not publish figures for colleges that did provide data.

The U.S. Department of Education requires schools to track student deaths, but not specifically suicides or attempted suicides. Suicide in 2013 became the second most common cause of death among college students, behind only motor vehicle accidents.

Even within California, inconsistencies in suicide reporting persist.

UCLA, for example, doesn’t report suicides at all and classifies them as death investigations in police logs. UC Berkeley, on the other hand, does make a distinction between suicides and attempted suicides. Officials there did not respond to requests for comment on how consistently officials track attempted suicides.

Clemson University in South Carolina does also track and provide information about attempted suicides in police logs, although school officials admit that not all suicide attempts and reports make it to the police department.

“We do not have an accurate number for suicides or suicide attempts. We are now looking into how to document those incidents, so that we can keep a more accurate count. We do document when they are reported, but not all are reported to the police department,” said Sgt. Michelle Young of the Clemson University Department of Public Safety.

Evidently, there are large discrepancies between how universities report on campus mental health: but to students like Alia Atkins, a USC junior studying political science and creative writing, it’s never been more important that USC becomes more consistent about reporting mental health statistics so the campus community is better informed.

“I think it’s a problem that affects everybody because of the high-pressure culture of the school, and if you’re coming to this school you should know about the problems it faces because it could be you next. It could be anyone,” Atkins said. “Just because you’ve had a great mental health record for the first 20 years of your life doesn’t mean year 21 isn’t going to kick your ass.”