Two years ago, Lennon Wesley III received a heartbreaking email.
As a USC university student government senator, the then junior – as well as other USG members – read a student’s personal account of a mental health crisis on campus. The USC Department of Public Safety was the primary responder during the accident. The student detailed being greeted by armed and uniformed security officers, who carry firearms as part of their work gear, and the psychological impact of that encounter.
“Reading that second-hand story was really painful,” Wesley said. “From that point on, my colleagues and I [at USG] we kept in touch with that student, and eventually came the point where we couldn’t wait any longer to get to university. “
The student’s vulnerability inspired Wesley and other USG members to contact DPS and USC Student Health about ways students’ experiences with mental health crises on campus could be improved.
Discussion of the issue was also taking place in another arena. The DPS Community Advisory Committee held input sessions with student representatives as part of its wider outreach to students, faculty, staff and neighbors. After an interdisciplinary effort, which resulted in the “One USC: A Vision of Community Safety for All” report, the university launched the Mental Health Assistance and Response Team – MHART – before the fall semester of 2022.
As the semester begins, workloads become heavier and schedules begin to fill, USC wants students to know that their mental health and well-being are a top priority. Students will now be able to meet a certified and licensed mental health professional from USC Student Health, who is also the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. This counselor will accompany DPS officers during a mental health emergency and, in appropriate cases, lead the response team and speak to the student first.
The program’s initial opening hours are Monday to Friday from noon to 8:30 pm When the program is launched, the goal is to possibly hire more doctors to expand the hours so that within the next year the program is available on weekends and later in the evening.
USC Student Mental Health Services: Focus on Physicians
“The impetus for the program is that we want students in crisis – or potentially in crisis – who have mental health problems to interact primarily with mental health doctors as an alternative to law enforcement,” said Steven Siegel, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine.
“The mental health providers will be with the officers when there is a call, and the mental health workers will eventually be in the center and interact with the student to help him get through the crisis, while public safety is there to support him.”
Erroll Southers, associate senior vice president, security and risk assurance, said the issue of armed officers responding to distressed students was a frequent topic during community input sessions. The MHART program is specifically designed to improve patient care and comfort while providing a direct link to mental health resources, he said.
“The safety and well-being of our college community are our top priorities and this program is a welcome resource,” said Southers, who is also a professor of practice in national and national security at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
According to Beth Kebschull, associate director of counseling and mental health at USC Student Health (a part of USC’s Keck Medicine), the idea for the MHART program is not new; DPS was already working with USC Student Health on some calls. In the previous iteration of the program, DPS officers phoned and consulted with a counselor about a student case. The counselor could then speak to the student on the phone and then advise DPS on the next steps.
We are sensitive to the fact that there are people with mental health needs who need to be understood, who need to be connected to resources, and who have done nothing wrong.
Beth KebschullUSC Student Health
“We are sensitive to the fact that there are people with mental health needs who need to be understood, who need to be connected to resources and who have done nothing wrong,” Kebschull said.
Currently, USC Student Health has five counselors who specialize in crisis students and each is given a day to work on the MHART Mental Health Field Call program. Two of these advisors – Andy Ying and Xonielle Jordan – said a program like this is invaluable to the USC community.
The pandemic has increased the need for mental health services for students
“Before the pandemic, there was a growing concern among the college population about unaddressed mental health problems,” Ying said. “Since the pandemic, more mental health situations have emerged and become a major concern, so this is the perfect time for USC to launch this program.”
For Jordan, this is an opportunity to show students from all backgrounds that the university takes their mental well-being seriously, but also understands that people respond differently to both officers and mental health care in general.
“As a black doctor, what has always been key to me is that community members see that people really care for them in a way that is helpful and beneficial, not persecutory,” Jordan said.
Wesley, now a USC graduate student, said he was delighted to see the university take action in implementing the MHART program. Although he said his impact on the program was relatively small, he is happy to see what has come to fruition since he received that email two years ago.
“I’m leaving campus next year by now,” he said, “but I’m just glad a whole new generation of Trojans, a whole new group of people in this community, have a renewed sense of, ‘ Hey, this is important. ‘”
Students who are in a mental health emergency can contact USC DPS at 213-740-4321 University Park Campus) or 323-442-1000 (Health Sciences Campus).
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline national line also offers 24-hour assistance. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.
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