Rumors of Drug Overdoses Surround Recent USC Student Deaths

By Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California.
November 14, 2019 Updated: November 14, 2019

Police may soon be investigating some of the nine deaths of University of Southern California students since August if rumors of drug overdoses prove true.

Three deaths this semester have been ruled suicides while the causes of death of the remaining six students have not been determined. The school acknowledged the recent spate of student deaths in letters to the USC community.

Mike Lopez, media relations spokesman for the Los Angeles Police, told The Epoch Times on Nov. 13 that the LAPD is awaiting results from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office for a determination on the other six deaths before deciding whether or not to proceed with any investigations.

“We are not investigating,” Lopez said. “We become the investigator once we get some type of suspicious death or death with foul play [determination] or something of that nature based on the autopsy report from the coroner’s office.”

Matthew Olson of Newport Beach was killed while walking on the 110 Freeway in the early morning hours of Aug. 26.

Another 28-year-old man was found dead in his apartment on Monday.

USC President Carol Folt did not respond to email inquiries from The Epoch Times on Wednesday. However, USC communications staff provided copies of two letters about the deaths that were sent to students and parents.

The most recent letter, emailed Tuesday night, warns students about the dangers of using opioids, especially mixing them with alcohol. It was signed by USC Police Chief John Thomas and two other university officials.

“We need you to be aware of the dangers posed by drug use. In particular, we want you to be informed about the dangers of abusing opioids. The effects of alcohol mixed with these drugs can be fatal,” the letter stated. “In addition to the direct effects of each substance, drugs shared for recreational use can be mixed with other substances to increase its effects, sometimes without a user’s knowledge. This practice is rising and is linked to overdose and death.”

The Nov. 12 letter comes in the wake of a letter about eight student deaths sent just two days earlier. One of the deaths came after the letter, signed by Folt and three other university officials, was emailed.

The first letter was emailed to USC students to dispel rumors that all the deaths were suicides.

“We are writing tonight because we have had a number of student deaths over the past several
weeks. These student losses are devastating and heartbreaking for all of us. People are searching for answers and information as we attempt to make sense of these terrible losses,” the letter states.

“There is a great deal of speculation about the causes of these deaths and most are being attributed to suicide. This is not correct. These tragic losses have resulted from a number of different causes. In some cases the cause of death is still undetermined, and in others the loved ones do not want details disclosed.”

Both letters encouraged students who may be experiencing any signs of mental health problems to seek counseling. Students in need of immediate help are encouraged to call USC’s 24-hour wellness line at (213) 740-9355. Anyone worried about a friend or fellow student was directed to the Trojans Care For Trojans website to report their concerns.

This fall, USC increased the number of mental health counselors by about 50 percent, according to Tuesday’s letter.

“We are committed to providing counseling services to those of you in need. We have received
additional support from faculty and counselors from several departments at Keck Medicine and from schools across the university,” the letter reads. “On Monday, we will be opening a Department of Psychiatry practice on the fifth floor of the student health center for ongoing mental health care. We will continue to ensure that services are in place for your safety and well-being.”

USC also encouraged students to contact authorities immediately if they witness anyone who may be overdosing.

“If someone you know overdoses, call 911 or alert DPS [UPC: 213-740-4321; HSC: 323-442-1000] immediately,” the letter states.

The phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

The number of counseling cases has risen dramatically over the last five years, outpacing the increase in student enrollment, according to a Center for Collegiate Mental Health report.

A recent Healthy Minds Study found that about a third of undergraduate students in the United States struggle with mental health issues, while more than 10 percent have experienced thoughts of suicide.

Varun Soni, USC’s dean of religious life, wrote in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that during his times at the university over the last 11 years, he has noticed a downward trend in the overall mental and spiritual health of USC students.

“Whereas students used to ask ‘How should I live?’ they are now more likely to ask ‘Why should I live?’ Where they used to talk about hope and meaning; now they grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness. Every year, it seems, I encounter more stress, anxiety, and depression, and more students in crisis on campus,” Soni writes.

Students have also reported feelings of loneliness, which is getting worse in the digital age of social media and texting, according to Soni.

“Students may have thousands of friends online, but few in real life; they may be experts at talking with their thumbs, but not so much with their tongues,” he writes. “As a result, many feel as though they don’t have a tribe or a sense of belonging. They feel disconnected from what it means to be human.”

Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California.