Embedded Counselors: Meeting students where they are

Dornsife College Ambassadors


College can be stressful but finding help shouldn’t be. To further support students on campus, Counseling and Mental Health Services is expanding a model of care called embedded counselors—where therapists are situated within a cultural community, a school, or other environment that is comfortable to students and where the therapist can become more deeply engaged with the population. The program began earlier in the year as mental health professionals were placed in the cultural centers in SEIP (Student Equity and Inclusivity Programs) and a few key professional schools. The program is now debuting its largest program, with five counselors in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

An embedded counselor is a licensed therapist within a student’s academic school or center. The embedded counselor will provide students the convenience of accessing therapy services, on site in the center and schools (when physical distancing restrictions are no longer necessary) as well as through telehealth.  All counselors are clinical faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences in the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

This opportunity will also help students meet with a therapist who has familiarity with their curriculum and expectations or simply bring a student more comfort meeting in a different office environment.

The embedded counselor model was initiated when USC received insight through an annual survey of student well-being (2019 Healthy Minds data). The data collected helped the University understand campus populations that had a heightened need for mental health services, and yet may not seek services. The embedded counselor model is a research-based model to encourage help-seeking among some of the most vulnerable populations.

The program was initially launched with the cultural centers La CASA, APASS, CBCSA, LGBTQ+ Center, Office for International Services, USC Gould School of Law, USC School of Cinematic Arts, and USC Kaufman School of Dance. Its success in these areas has opened up the ability to expand.

“The idea of embedded counselors is to have ongoing connection with specific student groups, and to get to know the specific circumstances of their context” says Dr. Summer Zapata, who oversees the embedded counselor program. “This not only helps individual students who are clients, but also helps the mental health professional tailor programs and discussions that make can the environment more supportive overall to student concerns and well-being.”

These embedded counselors are now live and providing telehealth appointments. Students may schedule an appointment through MySHR student health portal or by calling (213) 740-9355 (WELL) to connect with a therapist. Students will be able to experience in person services when pandemic safety measures recede.

Written by Diana Ulloa.