Amid increasing concerns about mental health in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global Black Lives Matter protests, USC Counseling and Mental Health Services are actively expanding their mental health services for international students and increasing specialized therapists for students of color through an embedded counselor option on the mySHR (my Student Health Record) portal. Dr. Alice Phang, Ph.D., is an embedded therapist for the Office of International Services and recommends that students utilize USC counseling services and stress management techniques to effectively deal with mental health concerns during COVID-19.

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hosted an online mental health workshop on October 16 to aid in breaking the stigma of mental health among the international student population. The workshop included a presentation by Dr. Ayoung Alice Phang, Ph.D., Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor of the Keck School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, which was followed by a Q&A. Annenberg Media has curated the top asked questions below for all students.

How is USC Student Health currently offering mental health services?

USC Counseling and Mental Health Services is currently offering telemedicine in place of in-person appointments, and both clinical and non-clinical appointments can be made through the mySHR portal.

What is the difference between clinical and non-clinical appointments?

Clinical appointments include individual therapy, group therapy and psychiatry and are only available for students in California. Non-clinical appointments include the Let’s Talk Drop-In sessions and other workshops via Zoom and are available to all students.

How is USC Student Health meeting the current demand for mental health services among USC students?

In order to address the need for quality mental health care for USC students aside from community referrals, the fifth floor of Engemann was newly opened last November for long-term therapy. Its services are now available online through telehealth options, such as referral appointments where students can talk with faculty members and get connected to clinical services within their state or country. Telemedicine for USC clinical services is currently restricted to patients within the state of California due to licensing laws. According to Dr. Steven Siegel, chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, USC Student Health has seen a massive increase in therapists and counselors with currently “85 full-time clinicians who are [solely] dedicated to the care of USC students.” With 1,780 student visits in the month of August across both Counseling and Mental Health (CMH) and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (PBHS) practices, USC Student Health has experienced no wait time in either practice to ensure increased access for student health.

Dr. Kelly Greco, assistant director of outreach and prevention services at USC, recommends the Let’s Talk Drop-In sessions for international or out-of-state students to meet with professors one-on-one over Zoom. Adjustments for the Let’s Talk sessions have been made since COVID-19, with faculty members speaking in other languages and earlier times to adjust for international time differences. Dr. Siegel states that USC Student Health plans to expand and “build even more capacity” for student mental health services when students eventually return to campus.

How can I find a therapist that suits my needs?

The USC Student Health website for Counseling and Mental Health includes further details on individual appointments, group counseling via TeleHealth and single-session workshops “for help with anxiety, sleep, relationships, and other topics.” At the bottom of the page is a hyperlink called “Meet the Counseling and Mental Health care providers”, which takes students to a list of all USC therapists, including Dr. Phang, so they can learn more and choose the therapist that best meets their needs. Dr. Phang recommends that students “research and look for [a therapist] that you think would fit well with you,” because “therapy is all about [a] good fit.”

How do I make a clinical appointment online via the mySHR portal?

Making an appointment using the mySHR portal is relatively easy, although Dr. Phang admits that the many options can be confusing. First, log into mySHR using your USC credentials. Then, click “Appointments” and “Schedule an appointment”. Under the “Counseling and Mental Health” category, click “Initial Appointment - First Time Clients” for a 50-minute consultation if you are interested in short-term therapy.

Dr. Phang notes that “all appointments are telemedicine right now”, so students can ignore the “must be physically in California at time of visit” message. Then, students can choose to sign up for a regular appointment or meet with an embedded counselor from the following options: a specific cultural center, the LGBT Resource Center, a specific school such as the Kaufman School of Dance (KDC) or the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA), or the Office of International Services (OIS). Dr. Alice Phang is currently the embedded therapist for the OIS, so if students choose that option, they would be scheduled to meet with her. The embedded counselor option is one of many programs that USC Counseling and Mental Health is piloting and developing, Dr. Phang says, as an “[effort] to better serve our historically marginalized, underserved populations” and to have more diverse faces on staff for students to feel safe to share their concerns with them.

Another resource is Trojans Care 4 Trojans, a private and anonymous online report for non-emergency student concerns. Students can submit a report on the Office of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention website, as Dr. Phang mentions that they are an office that is able to directly reach out to students, while CMH services cannot.

How do I know when I need therapy?

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that therapy may be helpful if you are thinking about or coping with an issue that takes up at least an hour of your day. Dr. Phang states, “if you’re spending a lot of emotional and mental energy on a concern, it’s probably a good time to talk to a therapist.” For students struggling with social anxiety, she says, “if you’re avoiding social situations because . . . you feel nervous or you feel anxious, it might be a good time to talk to someone.” Other indicators are if an issue has caused your quality of life to decrease, or if the issue is negatively affecting school, work or relationships (APA). Dr. Phang suggests that if students are going through struggles and need accommodations for classes or help talking to professors, they should reach out to the Campus Support and Intervention (CSI) office and it will work closely with the CMH office to provide accommodations for students. For example, if you move to a new school or country or undergo any major transition, “it may be helpful to come to therapy and talk about stress management,” she says.

According to Dr. Phang, some benefits of therapy include: learning more about yourself and your coping mechanisms in response to stressful situations and helping you achieve your goals, reduce unnecessary stress and have more fulfilling relationships. Therapy will increase your likelihood of having better health, Dr. Phang states, as it can lead to improvement in all areas of life. This is because “[when] you change one thing, it’ll have trickle effects on all other areas of your life.”

What if I have concerns about confidentiality?

For international students who may have concerns about confidentiality, such as worries that their past appointments will show up on their records and/or affect their student visas, Dr. Phang states that “anything you talk about with a therapist at USC Counseling and Mental Health (CMH) will stay in your USC Student Health file” and cannot be shared outside of USC Student Health without your written permission. Instead, Dr. Phang emphasizes that students should think of CMH services as “a safe place to come and share your concerns.”

How do I improve stress management during COVID-19?

Lastly, Dr. Phang addressed the importance of stress management during COVID-19. She defines stress as “any kind of change that requires adjustment or response, either mentally, physically or emotionally” and recommends identifying and categorizing your sources of stress. These sources of stress can be environmental (e.g. pollution, noise, cost of living), social stressors (e.g. college, job demands, financial problems, interpersonal conflicts), physiological (e.g. an illness, sleep problems, or a medical condition) or even your thoughts.

Dr. Phang highlights that personal thoughts are a significant source of stress that therapy focuses on a lot, such as through cognitive behavioral therapy for reframing thoughts. If you imagine all of your demands and resources on a see-saw, “if you have a lot more demands than resources, that’s what stress is going to look like,” according to Dr. Phang. A tip for reducing stress, she says, is “to figure out a way to reduce your demands or increase your resources.”

Other strategies for stress management include deep breathing, yoga and relaxation. Dr. Phang believes that deep breathing exercises effectively regulate physiological responses to stress. To perform a deep breathing exercise, she says to practice inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, exhaling for 6 seconds and repeating the exercise for 1-2 minutes. During exhalation, she recommends “imagin[ing] that all of your stress is leaving your body” and “telling yourself that you’re safe, you’re okay and there’s no real danger.” Although the stress response is natural in the presence of real threat or danger, chronic stress can be a problem for mental health, Dr. Phang says. If students are interested in meditation and mindfulness, she recommends downloading the Mindful USC app.

Above all, Dr. Phang mentions, “one important coping strategy is to focus on things you can control versus things that you can’t control.” Especially for international students, for whom changes to visa status and future career goals can feel overwhelming, Dr. Phang says it may be useful to remember to let go of what you cannot control and instead focus on what you can control and influence, such as everyday thoughts.

If students have any concerns or struggles with stress management, or finding ways to control negative thoughts, Dr. Phang wants them to know that “you have us [CMH] and we are here for you.”

If any part of making a telemedicine appointment for Counseling and Mental Health (CMH) is confusing, students can call their main line at (213)-740-9355 and the front desk will help them book the most appropriate appointment. Dr. Phang also shared that resources are available for times of crisis, i.e. when someone is having thoughts of harming themself or others. Consider the following resources in times of crisis:

  • call the Student Health Center (SHC) at (213)-740-9355 directly for an appointment
  • if concerned about a friend - call the USC Department of Public Safety (DPS) at (213)-740-4321
  • call Campus Support & Intervention (CSI) at (213)-740-0411
  • Mindful USC app
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (5233) and the Crisis Text Line (text “START” to 741-741)