‘We are here and we want to listen’: Uncle Joe’s reopens its office after pandemic shift to virtual services, reports uptick in student usage

| Contributing Reporter
A room with green walls, abstract art, a coffee table and a grey rug can be seen through an open doorway from a larger room with blue walls and a globe sitting on a tableCurran Neenan | Student Life

The refurbished Uncle Joe’s office in the basement of Gregg House

After pausing in-person services last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center has reopened its office on the South 40 and reported that more students have been using their services.

Uncle Joe’s provides confidential peer counseling services and resources for students, who can reach counselors by phone 24/7 or by visiting them in person from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. every night in the basement of Gregg Hall on the South 40. Last year, while the office closed in-person services, counseling was still available on the phone 24/7 and during the modified virtual nightly hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

“We’ve been seeing more people coming in person than we expected to because people really want to connect with someone. We found it makes people feel more comfortable,” Uncle Joe’s co-direct senior Emily Angstreich said. “We’ve found it helps them open up more, feel more relaxed; especially for people living on the [South] 40, it’s a lot easier for them to get here.”

Another benefit of the reopening of in-person services has been the ability for counselors and students to connect face-to-face. Angstreich added that virtual services were not as popular among students. “Students were hesitant to use it because they didn’t feel like they had privacy,” she said. “Luckily, now that we’re back in person, people feel like they have that privacy, that they’re not just in their room where anyone could walk in.”

“We’ve definitely been in contact with Habif [Health and Wellness Center], just because we have advisors there and I think everyone’s noticed an uptick in people coming in for mental health services,” Uncle Joe’s co-director Lily Swenson said. “On one hand, we’re really happy that people are reaching out and getting the help they need, but also, we’re concerned about students’ mental wellbeing.

Regarding the increase in engagement from last year, Angstreich noted that people may be seeking mental health services for different reasons.

“Have all these people always needed mental health assistance and they’re coming out because the stigma is lessened, or is it also just because it’s so much worse, like everyone’s mental health is suffering a lot more?” Angstreich said. “The answer is probably a combination of the two.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of many people. Approximately four in 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders in January of 2021, compared to one in 10 adults from January to June 2019.

In order to ensure COVID-19 safety for students and counselors, the Uncle Joe’s offices were rearranged so that people are six feet apart, masks are required, students must complete their self-screenings before entering and surfaces are wiped down after every session, Swenson said.

Beyond the new safety protocols and reconfiguration of the office spaces, the resumption of in-person counseling services meant that the 52 “Joes” (counselors) had to participate in an additional training session.

Because counselor training happens during the spring semester, it took place virtually on Zoom last year. “There wasn’t as much ability to practice in person interactions which have different body language, facial expressions, a whole different host of things,” Angstreich said, adding that they also had to train people on office rules and procedures.

The increase in clients at Uncle Joe’s may also be a result of more advertising and outreach with students on campus for the 2021-2022 school year. “We’ve noticed that a lot of first-years, more of them know about us compared to last year, so that’s been a real plus with everyone being back,” Swenson said.

While sophomore Lisa Cheung recalled seeing some flyers about Uncle Joe’s last year, she said she did not think many of her peers were aware of the service.

“I feel like because maybe it was remote… a lot of people didn’t know about it. I don’t think a lot of people used it last year just because not many sophomores knew about it,” Cheung said. “I feel like if I knew more about it, I would definitely utilize it. Mental health, especially here, because it’s so competitive, is really important.”

Although there are many mental health resources available for students, Cheung noted the benefit of Uncle Joe’s unique peer-to-peer counseling services. “It might be easier because you feel your peers know what you’re going through versus other services with adults,” she said. “They don’t actually relate to you, so I feel like this would be very helpful.”

Freshman Joy Hu, who knew Uncle Joe’s was open, added that the confidentiality of the services may compel students to seek their help.

“It’s nice that it’s confidential because I know that some people wouldn’t want to immediately have to report something,” Hu said. “It is cool that it’s peer counseling, so if people don’t want to go to an authority figure but maybe just someone who is more on [the same] level with them, they have that too.”

Angstreich said Uncle Joe’s would continue to serve students as well as it could.

“We’re not trained professionals but we are trained to listen, to give resources, to provide student counseling,” Angstreich said. “We are here, and we want to listen. I think we want people to know that we want to support them. We want to be here to, you know, hear whatever is going on in their lives and work with them to find resources to find relief.”

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