UC Irvine's Antsy 'Eaters

Is the university doing as much as it can to help students with mental-health issues?

UC Irvine's Antsy 'Eaters
Design and illustration: Dustin Ames

The flags in front of the traffic circle at UC Irvine are at half-staff, fluttering weakly in a nearly imperceptible breeze before a crowd of hundreds of students. A microphone sits between the campus' two iconic flag poles, and there's an array of mismatched illumination—tea lights, LEDs and traditional candles collected quickly over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

Directly in front of the mic, half a dozen bouquets of flowers rest next to four letters written spelled out with glowing cups: UCSB. The crowd is hushed, murmurs quieted by a moment of silence called to remember UCI's sister campus, UC Santa Barbara, following a killing spree that left seven dead and 13 wounded.

The mic is open for anyone who needs to speak, and emotions run high, from anger to sadness and disbelief. Eventually, a graduate student approaches the microphone. "I went to UCSB for undergrad," she says, her voice firm and clear at first. "Now, where I used to work is a crime scene. Where I lived is a crime scene."

Half-staff my memories
Dustin Ames
Half-staff my memories
Dustin Ames

As she continues, her voice begins to quiver; she sniffles and begins to sob. The only other sound is the hum of the loudspeakers. "I just want to thank everyone here," she finally says. "Every campus has had a candlelight vigil, and it's helped a lot of us grieve. Thank you."

As more students speak, topics range from the importance of reaching out to lonely students to gun control and misogyny. To the right of the stage, therapy dogs sit on green grass with their handlers; they offer affection to anyone who pays them attention.

Up the stairs and behind many of the 500 students in attendance is a folding table crowded by half a dozen staff members from the UCI Counseling Center, offering tissues, tea lights and an open ear. By now, it's 9 p.m., four hours after the office's normal closing time, but they're needed.

Administrators now take their turn at the microphone. One of the first to speak is Counseling Center Director Jeanne Manese. "I wanted to remind students that for any reason, the Counseling Center is here, and we're here for all of you," she says in a quiet yet steady voice, pausing to notice a murmur throughout the crowd. "We understand that things are happening, and we're doing our best to serve your needs. I want to share with everyone that in helping yourself, you're also helping other people to reach out."

Manese concludes her remarks with a quote she attributed to George Iles, an obscure 19th-century author: "'Hope is faith that lights the darkness,'" she intones. "Thank you, and please use the Counseling Center whenever you need to."

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It's in moments of collective tragedy that individual students—many of whom are already beset with educational, social and financial pressures—can be most vulnerable to mental-health issues. Traumatic events, even a school shooting on another campus, can completely derail a student already on the edge, setting him or her up for anxiety, depression or other issues.

At UCI, it falls to the Counseling Center, a department of just more than two dozen full-time staffers (and slightly more student staff), to maintain the mental wellness of the school's nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are for the first time leaving their homes and losing their support systems. But some say UCI is not doing enough. Some students feel the services offered are too few for a campus of its size, that the wait times for initial consultations at the Counseling Center are dangerously long, that the cap on sessions is detrimental to student health, and that outreach services aren't reaching enough. In short, they argue, the university needs to do more.

After all, UCI has seen more student suicides over the past eight years than any other university in Orange County: 11. In 2006, a UCI undergraduate leapt to her death from an 11th-story window at a hotel in Atlanta. A year later, a male undergraduate was found in a social-sciences building with a fatal gunshot wound to his head. A year after that, a male transfer student suffered a gunshot injury to the head while in Fontana. In 2010, an international graduate engineering student was discovered by a pair of hikers with a plastic bag over his head days after he had disappeared from his apartment, taking nothing but some petty cash. Last year, a prominent LGBT speaker jumped to his death from the top of a parking structure as other students looked on.

In that same time frame, both Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University reported no suicides.

The Counseling Center's offices are located next to one of the most foot-trafficked areas on campus, though its doors are set away from the circular road that rings the campus. It shares one of the campus' older buildings with other student services and is located just across from the gleaming Student Center, with its food courts, offices and pub.

The center's physical layout is like American patient-privacy laws manifested as architecture: Students entering the lobby must climb a set of stairs and maneuver a claustrophobic hallway before finding the reception desk. The building is quiet, save for the echoing footsteps of the occasional patient walking on the beige tile that leads to the 1980s carpet. Most of the center's staff are behind closed doors, working with students who have already made it into the system. Even the bathrooms are hidden behind keypads.

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