The life and lessons of an Uncle Joe’s co-director
Senior Emily Angstreich joined campus peer counseling resource Uncle Joe’s during her freshman fall, and has been a Joe — as the students in the organization are referred to — ever since, now serving as a co-director. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be in Joe’s,” she said. “I’ve struggled with my own mental health for a long time and [did] a lot of advocacy work in high school, so I signed up immediately.”
The program requires an intense emotional commitment and fosters a close counselor community, Angstreich explained. To build up their cohort of peer mentors, Joe’s requires a rigorous semester of preparation. Student-counselor-led trainings are held Tuesday nights from 7-10 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., totaling more than 100 hours throughout the semester.
Trainings are centered on themes such as grief or substance abuse, and trainees practice taking calls with active Joes pretending to be clients. They often also bring in speakers or community experts, such as people from the St. Louis Queer+ Support Helpline, to provide additional training on certain topics.
Angstreich said that Uncle Joe’s training has given her better preparation for her future career as a therapist than what she’s been taught in her psychology classes.
“I didn’t expect us to be a catch-all service,” she said. “I thought we would be more specified, but instead we learn how to handle everything that comes our way, and we learn to adapt. There are things we don’t talk about in training; for example, we never talk about COVID during training, and then COVID happened and we had to learn how to help people through that, and a lot of that is applying the same skills of validating, normalizing, empathizing.”
The operations of the organization are detailed to ensure that there are always people on duty, day and night. Two people are assigned to the office every night from 10 p.m.-1 a.m., and there are always people on duty for phone calls during the day and night.
“The freedom that we have and the way we function is very different from what I expected. Other peer colleges that have counseling like ours set up appointments, kind of like a WUSA relationship, and have nowhere near the depth of our availability, which is to come in anytime from 10-1 or call anytime 24/7,” Angstreich said.
Their on-duty presence doesn’t stop for classes, which she said most professors have been willing to accommodate, although some have been frustrated by the distractions to the class.
“If we are in class while on duty, we will get a call, try to leave the classroom and listen to the voicemail someone leaves,” she said. “From there we try to identify if this is a real person, and if the answer is yes, we will try to find a quiet place on campus. Some people go to Joe’s office, some people go to a one-person bathroom. I’ve taken calls from my car before.”
Conversations with people seeking out guidance for their mental health has helped expand Angstreich’s understanding of the lives of people around her.
“The biggest thing I have learned is that there is always something else going on in someone’s life,” Angstreich said. “There is always something going on behind the scenes and it is always important to give people the benefit of the doubt. There are people who will come into the office who I just pass on campus, and then I learn that they’re going through a tough time, and I wonder, ‘Wow, how many other people are going through the same thing?’ From my own guess, I would say everyone — everyone is complex.”
Anyone who is “willing and able to learn,” can potentially become a Joe, Angstreich said, but it is harder for some than others: “Being able to take on the things you are hearing from other people is a big emotional burden, and for people who are just beginning to reckon with things that happened in their own lives, being a Joe can be an additional strain.”
In order to decompress from the emotionally-demanding aspects of serving as a counselor, Joe’s holds opportunities for members to bond and unwind. Last semester, the Joes took a trip up to a member’s lake house and spent a weekend there, and they frequently have hangouts outside of campus. “People often take naps in the Joe’s office during the day, so we definitely find ways to prioritize self care,” Angstreich added.
The most fulfilling aspect of Joe’s is “those moments where, at the end of an interaction, someone says, ‘Wow I really didn’t expect to feel so much better,’” Angstreich said. “I feel glad in the moment that I was able to help get someone to a place where they were not at before. The goal of an interaction is not necessarily to help someone feel ‘better,’ but to help someone feel heard and understood. And so when I find that I’ve done that for a client, I feel really fulfilled.”