Despite staff departure in Emmons, ‘Oxy will not be without counselors’

Outside of the Emmons Wellness Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 1, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Four staff members at Emmons Wellness Center are leaving Occidental, including Staff Therapists Liz Mendez, Richard Estrada and Anna Rivera as well as the Director of Counseling Services, Jenny Heetderks. Emmons is actively recruiting and in the meantime has directed its student body to online resources in addition to remaining Emmons counseling services.

Mendez departed Dec. 2, while Estrada and Rivera will stay on part-time until the end of the Spring 2023 semester, according to the email sent to the student body announcing their departures. Heetderks said she left in the first week of February. According to Emmons’ page on the college’s website, this will leave Emmons with three counselors — psychologist Claudia Ortega, psychiatrist A. Paul Kurkjian and nutritionist Melissa Ireland — until new hires come in.

According to Estrada, senior staff therapist at Emmons, the simultaneous departures are coincidental.

“I cannot speak to why other therapists are leaving Oxy other than to say that it definitely was not planned,” Estrada said via email.

Estrada, who has a background working in community mental health with the LGBTQIA+ and substance use and recovery communities, has worked at Occidental since Fall 2019, which he said has been a dream come true.

“I grew up right down the street and used to roam the campus as a child with my mother,” Estrada said via email. “What drew me to want to work at Occidental College, was being able to work with the students who are at such a pivotal period and transitional point in their development.”

Senior Staff Therapist and Outreach Specialist, Richard Estrada, outside of Emmons Wellness Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 1, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Heetderks came to Occidental in 2010 and specializes in supporting students through eating disorders and trauma.

Both Estrada and Heetderks cited burnout and stress as motivations for leaving.

“I chose to leave Oxy for private practice, where I can create a better work/life balance,” Heetderks said via email.

Estrada, who also plans to open a private practice, also said he felt similarly. Estrada and Heetderks both said increased levels of anxiety in students due to post-pandemic trauma has been a roadblock to that balance.

“Working in the landscape of college wellness has changed since the pandemic with the increasing acuity of suicide, anxiety, depression, substance use and many other mental health issues which has made life more challenging and difficult,” Estrada said via email.

According to Estrada, this shift in the world of mental health after the pandemic has yet to be recognized by the college.

“I was experiencing feelings of burnout and overwhelm without the necessary support from the college,” Estrada said via email. “Students and staff are needing more support than before and in my opinion the college has not made the necessary changes for that to happen.”

Estrada is still hopeful for the future of counseling at Occidental.

“They are beginning to re-evaluate the structure of therapeutic services,” Estrada said via email.

In the email announcing the departure, Devon Sakamoto, assistant dean of students for Emmons, said the college is searching for new hires and is currently hiring part-time therapists.

“I want to assure the community here that Emmons and Oxy will not be without counselors,” Sakamoto said in the email. “We have secured additional part-time therapists in order to help us meet the needs of students during this staff transition time, and while we go through the searching and recruitment phase for the open positions at Emmons.”

Former Director of Counseling Services, Jenny Heetderks, outside of Emmons Wellness Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 1, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

To combat the loss in staffing, the college has partnered with TimelyMDHealthiestYou and BetterHelp to provide therapeutic services for students with and without the Oxy Student Health Insurance Plan. These platforms are virtual services where students can connect with thousands of psychologists and psychiatrists not affiliated with the college. According to Sakamoto, the virtual resources can be used in conjunction with Emmons and without the worry of cost.

“I also think a virtual care provider like TimelyMD provides an additional level of support to students even when the counseling center is fully-staffed, and it’s a necessary complement to the in-person services we provide,” Sakamoto said via email.

Sara Masaki (sophomore), who sought counseling from Emmons as a first-year, said Emmons can serve as the first stepping stone in a student’s mental health journey.

“Finding a therapist is such a big roadblock, especially when you’re going through a hard time,” Masaki said.

Masaki said her experience with Emmons was positive in part because it was a counselor from Emmons instead of a virtual resource.

“I think an important thing for me is that established or trustworthy staff member,” Masaki said. “It’s nice to have that on-campus resource.”

Occidental College has a 24-hour confidential mental health helpline available to all students. The hotline is staffed by mental health professionals who can help with mental health crises, emotional distress, trauma and substance abuse. The number is (323) 341-4141.

Contact Sebastian Lechner at


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