Launch of the MHART pilot program to help students in mental health crisis
Two years ago, Lennon Wesley III received a heartbreaking email.
As a senator in USC’s undergraduate government, the then-junior — along with other USG members — read a student’s personal account of a mental health crisis on the campus. The USC Department of Public Safety was the first responder to the incident. The student detailed being encountered by armed and uniformed security guards, who carry firearms as part of their work gear, and the psychological impact of this encounter.
“Reading this second-hand story was really painful,” Wesley said. “From then on, myself and my colleagues [at USG] stayed in touch with this student, and he finally reached the point where we couldn’t wait to reach out to the university.
The student’s vulnerability inspired Wesley and other USG members to reach out to DPS and USC Student Health to learn how to improve the student experience dealing with mental health crises on campus.
The discussion on the matter was also taking place in another arena. The DPS Community Advisory Board had held feedback sessions with student representatives as part of its broader outreach to students, faculty, staff, and neighbors. After an interdisciplinary effort, culminating in the “One USC: A Vision of Community Safety for All” report, the university launched the Mental Health Assistance and Response Team – MHART – ahead of the fall 2022 semester.
As the semester progresses, the workload grows heavier, and schedules begin to fill up, USC wants students to know that their mental health and well-being are a top priority. Students will now be able to meet with a licensed and certified mental health professional from USC Student Health, who is also a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. This counselor will accompany DPS officers during a mental health emergency and, when appropriate, lead the response team and speak to the student first.
The program’s initial hours of operation are Monday through Friday from noon to 8:30 p.m. As the program rolls out, the goal is to eventually hire more clinicians to extend the hours so that by next year, the program will be available on weekends and later in the evening.
USC Student Mental Health Services: Focus on Clinicians
“The impetus for the program is that we want students in crisis – or potentially in crisis – who have mental health issues to primarily interact with mental health clinicians as an alternative to law enforcement,” said Steven Siegel. , professor and head of the department. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine.
“Mental health providers will be with officers when there is a call, and ultimately mental health providers will be front and center interacting with the student to help them through the crisis, while public safety is there to support him.”
Erroll Southers, associate senior vice president, security and risk insurance, said the issue of armed officers responding to students in distress 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 university community are our top priorities, and this program is a welcome addition,” said Southers, who is also a professor of national and homeland security practice at the USC Price School of Public Policy. .
According to Beth Kebschull, associate director of counseling and mental health at USC Student Health (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 appeals. In the previous version of the program, DPS officers called by phone and consulted with a counselor about a student case. The counselor can then speak to the student by phone and then advise DPS of 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,” said Kebschull.
Currently, USC Student Health has five counselors who specialize in students in crisis, and each is assigned one day to the MHART program for mental health field calls. Two of those advisers — 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, college populations were increasingly concerned about undertreated mental health issues,” Ying said. “Since the pandemic, more and more mental health issues are emerging and becoming a major concern, so now is the perfect time for USC to launch this program.”
For Jordan, it’s an opportunity to show students from all walks of life that the university takes their mental well-being seriously, but also understands that people respond differently to agents and to mental health care in general.
“As a black clinician, what has always been paramount to me is that community members see that people actually care about them in a way that is helpful and beneficial, not persecutory,” Jordan said.
Wesley, now a graduate student at USC, said he was happy to see the university taking steps to implement the MHART program. Although he said his impact on the program was relatively small, he is happy to see what has materialized since receiving that email two years ago.
“I’m going to be leaving campus around this time next year,” he said, “but I’m just happy that 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 facing a mental health emergency can contact USC DPS at 213-740-4321 (University Park Campus) or 323-442-1000 (Health Sciences Campus).
The national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline also offers round-the-clock support. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.
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