Content Warning: This story contains mention of suicidal ideation and substance abuse.
If a student facing a mental health crisis today gets a visit from Department of Public Safety officers, they will be joined by a licensed medical health professional under a new program the university announced late last year. The Mental Health Assistance and Response Team (MHART) was designed to have “students in crisis — or potentially in crisis — that are having mental health issues to interact primarily with mental health clinicians as an alternative to law enforcement.”
Had such a policy been in place in October 2021, one particular student might have had a completely different encounter, not the “frightful, misinformed experience” she described having.
It’s been more than a year since a first-generation USC student was placed on a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold, forcing her to take a leave of absence in spring 2022. Though she’s back at school, she said her mental health struggles and USC’s response still make her feel like a “Dementor is sucking my soul out of me,” using a Harry Potter analogy.
The student, who worked as a resident assistant in university housing, described in a series of interviews over more than a year a “frightful” experience that was, at best, “misinformed,” and at worst, a demonstration of a deeply flawed system for USC students in crisis.
“I survived — all by myself,” said the student. Annenberg Media is not naming the student because she is worried speaking out will jeopardize her career prospects. The USC student has also not shared her mental health struggles with her family due to their religious beliefs.
USC called this particular situation an “extremely unlikely scenario” and outlined a very different process for what happens when a student reaches out for help.
When the pandemic hit, she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. As in-person classes resumed in 2021, the USC resident assistant struggled to manage her chronic illness. She could attain disability accommodations, receive deadline extensions and regularly attend therapy, but she still felt overwhelmed by the time the fall break of 2021 rolled around.
“I have to work a lot of jobs a semester since my family abroad has been really impacted by the virus, and therefore my mom was having a hard time making rent,” she said. “I think the pressure of working a lot of jobs and navigating the workplace as a first-generation woman of color and this disability became a lot for me.”
On October 15, 2021, feeling overwhelmed, she called the USC crisis support hotline. “I was able to get on the phone with a psychiatrist, and I told him that I was eyeing my medication and how easy it would be to take more than one,” she said. The counselor on the hotline was able to help the student with coping mechanisms and breathing exercises.
The next evening, she felt the same way and called the hotline again. Since it was after hours, she reached a nurse practitioner.
What happened next left her feeling traumatized and dehumanized, something she said illustrates a bigger problem at USC.
The nurse practitioner asked the RA general questions about herself and promised to send help. Suddenly, she was confronted by three fully-armed DPS officers, the student said.
“‘What’s going on? Why are these armed officers at my door?’ It was really scary. ‘Why are the police here?’” she recounted in an interview soon after the incident.
Annenberg Media has spoken to the student several times since reporting began in 2021.
“I didn’t commit a crime. I didn’t do anything wrong. I did not overdose. I was just scared out of my wits,” the student said. She said she felt uncomfortable and scared by the DPS officers’ presence in her apartment, especially since they were armed in what she considered a non-violent situation.
She said she was transported to Las Encinas Mental Health Hospital in Pasadena to be placed under a 72-hour psychiatric hold without fully understanding what was happening.
Annenberg Media verified this information by cross-checking that day’s DPS logs.
The student’s testimony and USC Student Health’s procedures for putting a student in a 72-hour hold do not match.
Danielle Gautt, assistant director of outreach and prevention services at USC Student Health’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMH), stated that the hospitalization process is nuanced.
“We’re really talking about individuals who have a plan, who have intent to possibly harm themselves and also can’t really commit to safety,” she said. Gautt reiterated that self-injurious behavior is not a criterion for hospitalization. It is only when a student’s safety is at imminent risk that such action is taken, Gautt said.
In a separate interview, Dr. Steven Siegel, chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Keck, echoed Gautt, adding that a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold “only ever occurs when the student or a person, when the identified person has made it very clear, unequivocally clear, that they are a danger to themselves, or someone else.”
Siegel outlined a comprehensive, multi-step process for someone placed in this hold.
“No one is ever hospitalized directly from that single interaction [over the phone]. Assessments are always done in person,” Gautt said in a 2021 interview. “Every assessment, someone is physically there.”
However, the MHART program — in which a counselor accompanies DPS officers in a mental health emergency — was only established in September 2022.
Gautt said that after business hours, a call to the crisis hotline is routed to Protocol, a mental health crisis service organization. Protocol providers are clinicians who do a general screening. If they think additional services are needed, a CMH clinician is available 24/7 to provide consultation and additional support. Siegel reiterated this point in a subsequent interview.
The USC RA said her call was not routed to CMH. Instead, she said, the officers took her to Las Encinas, where she spent three traumatic nights, without support or follow-up from the university.
“I came back to my apartment and how do I pick up the pieces from here? I went through such a dehumanizing experience,” she said. “I sat at my little desk and my desk is next to the door of my apartment, and I just kept seeing the DPS officers coming in and replaying everything that happened.”
When specifically asked about how USC did not reach out after this student’s experience, Siegel declined to comment on a specific student’s experience due to privacy.
He added that USC will follow the appropriate processes to ensure it has a student’s consent before coordinating care. Once they are discharged, he said, the university will “reach out to them. We offer them care. We try to provide them follow-up appointments, even help facilitate whether they need to go to something called an IOP as a step-down, or have their care at USC through CMH counseling and mental health.”
USC’s relationship with Las Encinas
Las Encinas has a longstanding partnership with USC, according to Gautt. Siegel also emphasized their “very high quality” programs.
However, the student described otherwise.
During her time there, the student’s vegetarian breakfast was “burnt,” and, she later wrote in her journal, she discovered “a piece of metal in [her] food.” The hospital staff said they would report it, but did not seem too concerned, she said.
The student said she spoke to other female patients at the hospital. They all had similar beaded bracelets they crafted while making jewelry, one of the activities organized by the hospital. “A lot of their bracelets said ‘fuck this place.’ It was spelled out,” she said.
She understood these girls’ sentiments. The hospital had one communal restroom and the staff did not provide patients with shower shoes. The female patients had to wear donated clothing and disposable underwear while in the facility. The only time they were allowed to go outside was for cigarette breaks.
The hospital said they would have a social worker contact the student’s managers to let them know why she missed work; however, when she was discharged, she found that they had not.
The USC student was admitted on a Saturday night, but had to wait till Monday to see a doctor. “I just wanted to talk to someone, and I had no one to talk to,” she said. “I felt like talking to the patients was way more therapeutic than my time there.”
Three interviews with other former Las Encinas patients and examinations of documents reveal that the USC student is not alone in her trauma. The interviewees, all women, shared their own agonizing experiences under a 72-hour psychiatric hold at Las Encinas after calling the Los Angeles Police Department emergency line.
When the USC student finally met the doctor that following Monday, he asked her basic questions about herself, such as what prompted her to be admitted and how Las Encinas was helping her. The doctor then said she could be discharged the next day and the hospital arranged for her to be dropped off.
“USC did not provide the transport. I never once got a call from anyone from USC, any USC official or anything from the health office,” she said.
More than a year after her 72-hour hold, the RA had to pick up the pieces alone. In follow-up interviews, she reiterated that USC has never checked in on her during her time at Las Encinas or any time after.
She now attends weekly therapy sessions, which she says help to an extent.
Around the first anniversary of the incident, the RA was overwhelmed, saying, “There were days where I couldn’t get out of bed. I was just crying, overcome with grief.”
The RA wishes that USC had a more transparent process of handling mental health emergencies. Still, against all odds, she has been trying to take care of herself.
“I don’t want to be defined by my trauma; I want to define my trauma,” she said. “I want to let other students and readers know that they’re not alone. You’re not the only person that experiences trauma.”
If you have an experience you’d like to share, Annenberg Media would like to hear from you. Please fill out this anonymous form at: tinyurl.com/AM-MentalHealthStory. Telling student stories can show the USC community that no one is alone.
Students are encouraged to seek help through USC’s mental health support resources here.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. 1-800-273-8255