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."
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."
* * *
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.
The building is so small and funding so short that the Counseling Center cannot add any staff. According to the International Association of Counseling Services (IACS), the organization that accredits university counseling programs, schools should have one full-time psychologist or psychiatrist per 1,000 to 1,500 students. UCI currently employs 18 full-time counselors (in addition to one fellow and several interns) for nearly 30,000 students—a ratio of one to approximately 1,650. In Orange County, only Cal State Fullerton's Counseling Center is more anemically staffed, with 15 full-time counselors for a slightly larger student body. Meanwhile, Chapman University employs six full-time counselors for approximately 7,100 students. To reach recommended staffing levels, UCI's Counseling Center would have to hire two additional staff members.
Just getting an appointment at UCI's Counseling Center can be difficult. By the time students decide they might need help, they may have to wait months before they can actually receive it, a point the center's director concedes. "With all of the recent mental-health needs, I think it's easy to say we feel understaffed," Manese says.
Due to the staff shortage, students have to wait two weeks before they can speak with a counselor during the best cases. If they decide to wait until the most stressful portions of the quarter—midterms and finals—they may have to wait three months before an appointment can be made. Students who feel they need "urgent care"—who believe they are "in crisis"—or who are referred by other concerned persons can see a counselor the same day, after walking into the center's office and filling out some paperwork, though some students who may qualify for urgent care choose to initially schedule a normal consultation instead.
Compared to other University of California campuses, the situation at UCI is even grimmer. Only three UCs are unaccredited by the IACS—Irvine, Merced and Los Angeles. And despite its lack of accreditation, UCLA employs nearly twice as many counselors per student as UCI.
At UC Irvine, students have long asked for more services. Op-eds on the underfunding of the Counseling Center in the New University date back nearly a decade, with the most recent one printed earlier this year. "The reality is that our Counseling Center is not offering enough resources for students to feel safe and heard," wrote Parshan Khosravi in the April 8 edition of UCI's school newspaper. "Maybe it's because of lack of funding, or maybe due to the lack of care toward mental-health services."
An April meeting between UC President Janet Napolitano and student stakeholders to discuss the hiring of a new chancellor unexpectedly veered into the subject of Counseling Center funding, with particular attention paid to wait times. In February, the Associated Graduate Students passed legislation requesting an expansion of the center. The campus' administration has acknowledged the issues, but thus far, it has only been able to apply temporary fixes as it awaits new space and more funding.
"Our space has been there for decades," says Marcelle Holmes, who has been the the assistant vice chancellor in charge of wellness, health and counseling services since 2012. "For now, we're being creative with the resources we have. In the short term, we've been cutting back on some of our outreach. It's a temporary strategy to free up time for our counselors to see more students."
* * *
The college years are particularly stressful for many people, combining moving, lost support, relationship issues, financial pressures, questions about identity, increased academic rigor and becoming an adult. Indeed, statistics show that college students are one of the groups that most need mental-health services. According to a study conducted by UCLA in 2011, one in five people in California are eventually diagnosed with a mental illness, with one-quarter of those diagnoses occurring between the ages of 14 and 24.
In a 2006 study, the University of California discovered that a quarter of its students arrive on campus already taking some form of medication for mental health. "We're way beyond your standard relationship and break-up issues," Holmes says. "Students come to the university with a history of cutting and self-harm, prior hospitalizations. Those situations need to be managed."
Challenges can be even worse for graduate and Ph.D. students. According to a survey of UCI graduate students conducted in 2008, nearly one-third of those students had a mental-health issue that affected their education. In the same study, 30 percent of graduate students reported thinking about suicide, with 8 percent having attempted it.
With no money to expand counseling services, UCI administrators have gone to seemingly desperate lengths to discourage students from killing themselves. Last year, the university spent thousands of dollars on planters placed next to several buildings to dissuade jumping, the hope being that students looking over the edges of stairwells would see the flowers and greenery and decide not to leap. Many of these planters can be found in the Social Science Plaza, dotting the area's tall stairwells; they are mostly used by students as trash cans. Signs with contact information for suicide-prevention services have also been posted on various tall buildings, including those in the social-sciences area, where two of the most recent suicides took place.
"We're the size of a small city, so we do have some suicides that do occur," Holmes says. "Every case is different. It could be family or financial pressures, substance abuse. It's something that's certainly a concern for us, and there's a lot of things the campus is doing to try to reduce those risks."
But some of those service changes came too late for many students, including 21-year-old Tim McCormack. He's a senior engineering student currently working his way into the computer-science program, though he'll have to attend school for at least one additional year—maybe two—before he can graduate. The Lake Los Angeles native has been dealing with anxiety since he was in high school and depression since he started college.
Now, McCormack's doctors think he might have bipolar disorder, though he says he hasn't experienced any highs. By his estimation, he has taken nearly every available serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (a class of antidepressant), as well as other medications. "[Anxiety] started gradually," McCormack says. "First, it would be hard to speak, hard to breathe. My hands would go numb. Over time, it progressed to this horrible sense of worry that my whole world was collapsing on me. The worst part was that it progressed to horrible vomiting. . . . A lot of math finals that I've taken at UCI, I would vomit either before or after."
During his worst bouts of depression, McCormack would have trouble getting out of bed each day. Over time, he gained 50 pounds. In October 2012, he finally made an appointment with the Counseling Center, but they weren't able to see him until December. By then, campus police had sent him to UCI Medical Center in Orange for involuntary observation after a friend interpreted as a possible suicide note a mass text he sent out stating, "I'm not going to hang out with you, I don't want to do anything."
Doctors held McCormack for about 40 hours with several other patients. When he finally met with the Counseling Center in December, McCormack says, the staff looked over his paperwork, and then told him that they couldn't help him—that he needed long-term therapy that they couldn't provide. "They seemed very not caring; they seemed very not professional," he says.
And they didn't bother to give him a referral to the Health Center. Today, McCormack receives services from the UCI Student Health Center, which offers long-term mental-health services and to which the Counseling Center normally refers long-term patients, though McCormack says he found them himself. The Counseling Center refers students to other agencies when the students have possible health issues that need to be ruled out or if they have long-term psychiatry or psychotherapy needs.
According to Counseling Center policy, McCormack should have received a referral. "They set appointments up every two weeks for me, just to make sure I'm okay," he says. "They refill my prescriptions. I found them because I thought, 'There's got to be something the campus can do to help.' I just felt miserable; I didn't want to feel miserable."
Complaints don't stop just at bottlenecks at the Counseling Center. Some students feel that faculty and staff don't have the competency to work with students who need extra help, especially when it comes to mental-health issues. For instance, McCormack qualifies for such disability services as test rescheduling, time extensions and prepared notes, but to receive such accommodations can become an odyssey.
Students and their doctors must fill out lengthy forms that need to be submitted to the Disability Services Center. That department works closely with Student Health Services and the Counseling Center, and students who use one of those services frequently qualify for others. After the forms have been accepted, students must contact professors themselves to receive aid. If professors refuse, students then have to go back to the Disability Services Center, at which point the center advocates for the student.
"It's not even the Counseling Center or [Student Health Services ] that's the issue for me; it's everyone else," says a fourth-year informatics student who asked to remain anonymous. "People don't have sensitivity training on how to not be an asshole. Like faculty, you go up to them, and you say 'I'm depressed' or whatever, but they're very standoffish. They don't know what to say or what to do."
In 2013, the student was living in the dorms when one of his roommates, Christien Rodriguez, an RA and prominent LGBTQ mentor and speaker, withdrew from school. In March of that year, Rodriguez jumped from the top of a campus parking structure. "When you're an RA, you get to pick your own roommates," the student explains. "A year before, I had asked on Facebook if anyone needed someone to live with, and he was very nice and said I could live with him, even though he barely knew me. Now, when you go through the forms, they make it very clear that if your RA for whatever reason has to leave the campus, they can't guarantee you a spot."
After Rodriguez committed suicide, housing administrators almost immediately contacted his former roommates about relocating. "The situation happened, and I was like, 'So, hey, housing, I'm not doing that well; could you ease off a bit,'" the student recalls. "Nobody else in the apartment was doing well, either. But [housing] was like, 'No, you need to pack; you need to go.'"
Being told he had to move out right away wasn't exactly the support the student says he was hoping for. "It was terrible," he says. "I was on medication, in intensive therapy, calling my therapist every day, telling him, 'I'm going to kill myself. I hate this. I hate this school; I hate everything about this place.' . . . It was not a great situation."
* * *
As Counseling Center funding has struggled to keep up with need, more specialized services have been created to help students before they arrive at the point at which they require counseling. The Campus Assault Resource and Education Center provides confidential support and counseling for survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse. The Student Outreach and Retention Center, funded partially by student fees approved by referendum, works with students who are facing academic challenges. The LGBT Resource Center additionally offers support and events for that community.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the United States' largest mental-health nonprofit, is also starting to do more work on campus through its Santa Ana office. In Orange County, NAMI provides free support groups, phone lines and education to people living with mental illness and their friends and families.
In May, NAMI sent two volunteers to campus, a mother and son who had both gone through counseling after the son fell into depression and alcoholism. They shared their life stories with the hope of dispelling some of the stigma around mental illness. More than 100 students attended the event, which was held in two of the largest rooms in the Student Center and whose question-and-answer session nearly lasted longer than the stories.
"We do things like this every year," Holmes says. "Either there are people who have gone through their own issues or there are people with disabilities. . . . It helps to reduce stigmas. When you start to normalize that everyone has struggles or that everyone has friends with struggles, students don't feel so alone or secretive."
Even with its full-time staff now mostly dedicated to direct counseling, the Counseling Center still offers a series of peer workshops utilizing its student staff called Friends Helping Friends, aimed at specific difficult events. Among the topics covered are making new friends, relationship transitions and test anxiety.
On May 14, as the spring quarter was winding down, a Friends Helping Friends seminar took place in a small room in the student center. The subject matter was "life transitions," just in time for the graduation of the class of 2014. "Change can be difficult," a flier advertised. "There are some major life transitions that can be stressful. Come learn to cope with and prepare for major life transitions."
Roughly 40 students attended the one-hour class, led by three peer mentors guiding their wards as they went through ice breakers and discussions about careers and education. The mentors stood at the front of the room, surrounded by an uneven sprinkle of students in seats. The more assertive students sat close to the front, while meeker ones stayed farther back. Though there were a fair amount of empty chairs, the mentors ran out of handouts.
"So, what are some ways that we can find out what we want to do for a career?" one of the mentors asked. He paused purposefully, his eyes scanning the room for any hint of a volunteer. Eventually, they settled on one of the students closer to the front.
"You could do internships," she responded. "Or you can volunteer."
"Yeah, that's good," a different mentor chimed in. "You can do internships or volunteer, and you can always ask your friends about the things that they do."
Light on content, but full of wholesome earnestness, the seminar didn't seem likely to dilute the tremendous psychological strain faced by UCI's student body, at least not overnight. But for the mismatched group of misplaced souls in attendance, it at least gave them somewhere to belong, as well as a sense that someone is there to help. And, in the end, that might just be exactly what they needed.
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