Students can access tailored support from dedicated mental health professionals
College life can test a student’s mettle. Embedded counselors are available to provide mental health assistance to those in need. (Photo: iStock.)

Students can access tailored support from dedicated mental health professionals

Embedded counselors provide greater mental health assistance for USC Dornsife’s diverse community of young scholars.
ByAnnie Bang

Balancing tough academic courses with the increased responsibilities that come with independence – all while maintaining a social life – can be a challenging struggle that impacts a student’s mental health.

Amid a growing culture of mental health assistance in the nation, many colleges and universities have implemented measures for students’ mental well-being, such as bringing in more psychologists and therapists to assist students. At the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, students seeking these treatments need look no further than their own academic departments, where counselors have been embedded to provide greater access to mental health care.

According to Emily Anderson, college dean of undergraduate education, the pandemic signaled a greater need for mental health assistance, which led to increased accessibility for therapy services.

“I stepped into my position right in the middle of the pandemic, and clearly a major need for students at that time was mental health wellness support, and the university in general was increasing those resources substantially,” she said.

Embedded mental health professionals focus on particular needs

Embedded counselors are therapists that remain specifically within a cultural community or program to better understand the population and their specific needs. Rather than attempting to understand the struggles of the entire student body, these counselors tailor solutions for the unique challenges that face certain populations. For instance, cultural programs such as Asian Pacific American Student Services, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and the LGBTQ+ Center have implemented this embedded model to meet the needs of students belonging to marginalized communities.

“[The embedded counselors] give us the chance to tailor the kind of emotional and mental support we provide to students, both in terms of individual interactions and often in terms of workshops, programming, you name it,” Anderson said.

Guru Shabd Khalsa, a clinical instructor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, serves as an embedded clinician for USC Dornsife. She appreciates the students’ varied passions.

“We love the variety of students and experience within Dornsife,” she said. “All the language and cultural studies mean to me that our students are interested in the people and world around them, and that connection and curiosity make for great interactions.”

Khalsa shared that USC Dornsife’s diverse population came with varied concerns, and encouraged students to reach out when they needed help.

“That being said, we’ve encountered some common concerns like anxiety, depression, struggling to adjust to life on campus and managing perfectionism and procrastination,” Khalsa said. “It’s important to remember that transitions are hard and can take time, we all deserve compassion no matter what situation we have found ourselves in, and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

Students gain better access to mental health services

Summer Zapata, assistant director for academic embedded services and graduate student counseling, says the embedded model has been beneficial for counselors as well, allowing for more genuine relationships between the students and clinicians.

“I think the counselors have a lot of passion for working with these particular students and programs, and it allows them to get more personally connected with the faculty and staff and with the students in particular,” Zapata said.

Zapata also believes that the embedded counselors program has raised the visibility of mental health treatment at USC and allowed students to access services more easily and with less stigma.

“As clinicians, we work hard to fight against the stigma of therapy and mental health struggles,” Khalsa said. “Needing help or support does not mean there’s something wrong with you, and if you speak up and ask for help sooner, before things become a full-blown crisis, the process is so much better and effective.”

USC Dornsife currently has five embedded counselors that serve the diverse student population. Students can book an appointment with a therapist through USC’s mySHR portal.