An Interview with Jo Blue, Health and Wellness Resource Center Manager at the University of Washington Bothell.

By Ahmed Ahmed Baba, Gabrielle Alverson, Dulce Barrera, Andrew Denny, and Chris Entrop, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

As we were waiting in our Zoom breakout rooms, the faint roar of cars traveling past buzzed in the background. Night had descended, and the smell of freshly fallen rain wafted in through the window. Hidden deep within her husband’s office sat Jo Blue. A hazy glow of light glinted off of her expressive hazel eyes. Centered behind her, loomed a pair of tall mahogany wood cabinets. She held her head high, arms casually resting on either side of her, a picture of confidence. Jo gazed toward the camera with an earnest demeanor, anticipating the questions to come. We began with an exchange of warm welcomes. As the interview proceeded, Jo’s enthusiasm radiated within the space. Her voice, soft and smoky, spoke with passion. 

Jo has always had a dedication for helping people; she just didn’t know how that fervor would materialize. While she began her schooling as a pre-med major, her path quickly shifted when she took a class on public health, igniting a fire buried deep within her. She found her true calling and began her journey into the world of public mental health. This path brought her to the University of Washington Bothell. As the Health and Wellness Resource Center Manager, she has been instrumental in overseeing mental health programs, all of which have touched the lives of countless students. 

Like many institutions, the pandemic has made UW Bothell significantly more aware of the mental health crisis amongst college students. The statistics reported are concerning, as forty-four percent of college students have experienced depression and anxiety in the past year. Suicide is also the third-leading cause of death for college students according to Mayo Clinic. To increase mental health support and resources on campus, NAMI Seattle is growing their presence at UW Bothell’s Health and Wellness Center (HAWC). Jo gave us a personal insight into how UW Bothell has handled the rise in students’ mental health needs. 

Do you have any personal connections with mental health issues and if so, have they given you a better perspective on how to help people and how to approach getting people to be more open and honest about the issues as a whole?

JB:I think, like so many people, it is something I’ve dealt with myself, both a long time ago, as a college student, and even fairly recently, dealing with both depression and anxiety at different points in my life. Just having that understanding, not only of what that feels like and how that impacts someone’s day-to-day life, but also the experience of trying to figure out how to reach out for help and how to manage those issues and some of the barriers that are in place.

If folks haven’t dealt with that, it can be hard to understand. How, what a challenge it can be to both reach out, get help, and even once you’ve reached out. I think our system definitely has some challenges in place for folks receiving mental health care. So, I think that’s definitely made me more empathetic to that experience for students on our campus.

How committed is the University of Washington Bothell (UWB) to the issue of mental health as a whole and trying to provide resources and help people and commit to making this a focus in the long term?

JB:The University is very committed to it, especially the last two years. There are many challenges that come up and we’ve always had a fabulous counseling staff on campus who have done great work with students. This year, they have been busier than ever before. They’ve been trying to get creative with how they can keep those services open to students and see enough students that are seeking help. The UWB has put a lot of programs in place between the Counseling Center and the Health and Wellness Resource Center. The counseling staff is doing everything they can to make these programs easily accessible.  

How has the collaboration with NAMI Seattle volunteers, such as Professor Umetsu, helped shape the work at the University? 

JB:The Learning Community  is a very cool program that is offered to staff and faculty and we’ve accidentally come together as folks who are interested in this behavioral health work. It’s a great way for folks who maybe otherwise wouldn’t always interact on campus that come from various departments and areas to share things that we might all know different things about, ways that students can access mental health services, or we might all have very different kinds of community connections. We are partnering with NAMI Seattle to try and bring additional educational programs to campus, such as presentations and student clubs. This has been a way to open up, as we try to get creative on how we support students’ mental health, knowing that our counseling staff can only be stretched so thin. There are only so many of them, and there are only so many hours in the day to see students individually.

Over the next few years, how do you see the overall program developing?

JB:In terms of just mental health on campus broadly, I know that campus is really trying to add support as quickly as they can to our counseling staff to make sure that we’re able to continue meeting the needs of students. Pre-COVID, there was never a wait; students could walk in and almost immediately get an appointment. We would like to get closer back to that. I know some folks in the Wellness Resource Center are trying to increase the amount of training specific to mental health.

What are some of the challenges you faced with the mental health department at the UWB?

JB:This year has definitely been the most challenging by far, and our counseling staff is amazing and we work closely with them but, again they are human beings. The number of requests they’ve had for student appointments is so much larger than what they’ve ever had. Logistically, it’s a challenge if a student does come in and wants to meet with a counselor. There’s been a bit of a waitlist. 

We’ve gotten creative. United Way has been working to bring in additional community partners as part of the United Way Benefits hub program so that there are more referrals available to students. So if a student needed to see someone in the community off-campus, they’d have the ability to do that regardless of insurance or the ability to pay, even if it’s just while they wait to get into talk with someone on campus. Faculty have also been getting creative to find ways to support the counseling center staff in ways that we haven’t had to do before. That really has been the biggest challenge this year, we just know there’s such a need, and trying to ramp up so quickly has been tough.

How could we help spread the message about the importance of mental health and be part of the solution?

JB: If someone feels like they’re dealing with anxiety that’s keeping them from doing the work they need to do, the temptation is not to say anything. The more that students can start the conversation about mental health, the more it opens up those lines of communication for other people, like ‘oh, yeah, me too, actually, I wasn’t gonna say anything, but since you did…’

Keeping those conversations going makes folks feel confident in normalizing reaching out, checking in with family and friends, whether you think there’s a problem or not, not waiting until it’s something that seems to be concerning. Normalizing regular check-ins and conversations with your peers helps to speak as a way of preventative wellness like we would with any other health check-up with a doctor. Talking about those things with your friends and your peers is really important. Students can find mental health support by using apps like My SSP, where help is available 24/7.

In order to combat mental illness it’s essential to dismantle the stigma. Please know you are not alone, get support when you need it. If you would like to get in touch with a NAMI support group or look at available mental health support hotlines, click here

NAMI Seattle has an ongoing relationship with Professor Laura Umetsu and her writing students at UW Bothell. Umetsu’s students engage in destigmatizing mental health in alliance with NAMI while learning the importance of ethical business writing.This piece has been a collaborative effort between UW Bothell business writing students and NAMI Seattle. Special thanks Jasmine Bager for mentoring and giving feedback to students.