‘An important first step:’ Uncle Joe’s provides resources, peer counseling

Peer counseling, resource center participating in Mental Health Awareness Week

To be a “Joe” is important work — now more than ever.

Uncle Joe’s, Washington University in St. Louis’ confidential peer counseling and resource center,  recorded 44 percent more interactions with students in fall 2017 compared to fall 2016. And in the past five years, interactions have spiked — increasing about 220 percent.

Those numbers align with national trends, said Tim Bono, who advises the organization along with Jessica Dyer, licensed clinical social worker in mental health services at Student Health Services.

“Across the nation, there is a huge mental health crisis among college students,” said Bono, lecturer in psychology and assistant dean in the Division of Student Affairs. “Accessing Uncle Joe’s can be an important first step. They give students who need help right now an opportunity to talk to someone who can direct them to the right resources.”

There are 25 to 40 “Joes,” student counselors who staff walk-in office hours from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. every night on the South 40 and are available via phone 24-7.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Uncle Joe’s co-directors Sarah Vaughen, a senior studying cognitive neurology in Arts & Sciences, and Ellie Borgstrom, a senior studying psychology and English in Arts & Sciences, discuss what Uncle Joe’s offers students and what it means to be a Joe:

What is the mission of Uncle Joe’s?

Vaughen: Our organization is based on the belief that everyone deserves a space where they can be listened to and to have their story respected. So we train our Joes for more than 100 hours on a variety of topics — suicide, grief, sexual abuse, eating disorders and others — so we can have meaningful conversation.

Borgstrom: We do get students who ask, ‘Well, what would you do?’ We are not licensed counselors, so our role isn’t to give advice. But we can have a really good conversation with someone. Sometimes, just talking through something is helpful in and of itself. And sometimes, we make a plan together for next steps with a professional on campus or in the community.

Uncle Joe’s has seen a spike in the number of students served. Why is that?

Vaughen: One reason is that the stigma around accessing mental health resources has decreased, and that is a wonderful thing. But concurrently, the stress on this campus, in this community and in this nation has increased. That means us and Student Health Services are getting huge numbers. For many of our clients, we represent the first time they have sought out mental health services. There is something really special about someone sharing their story with you. I feel very honored to be in that position.

How do you respond when issues such as #MeToo emerge?

Borgstrom: A big part of our job as co-directors is to assess the needs of our community and help the organization adapt. Whether that is something in our community or in the broader world, we will find good campus or community resources and bring them in to help our Joes. For example, stalking was originally not part of our training. Now we train on stalking. We have started looking at the ways mental health and physical health interact. And we’ve really increased training about identity and intersectionality. And we pay attention to how particular issues, such as the Stockley verdict or #MeToo, are impacting our peers.

Do you ever leave a session just wiped out emotionally?

Vaughen: A lot of students on this campus are in this mode of giving all they can all of the time, and our counselors are not an exception to that. So self-care is really important. That’s why we spend a lot of time building emotional closeness and trust among the counselors. We replenish each other. That’s important for our Joes and also for our clients because if I get emotional during a session, than that student may feel the need to comfort me, and we never want that to be the case. The client must always be the focus.

Is it ever weird to run into one of your clients on campus?

Vaughen: Not really. Students know that we are a totally confidential resource and what is said there, stays there. With this being a relatively small campus, it is totally possible to run into someone you have seen in the office. We just follow their lead. If they smile and wave, we smile and wave back. And if they don’t pay attention to us, that’s totally fine. Their comfort is absolutely the most important thing.

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