Room 13, the much-advertised counseling hotline, is not a single room, nor is it numbered thirteen.
But it is open all night long.
Peer counselors working for the hotline spend 7 p.m to 7 a.m. in a suite of rooms in Grays’s basement, suspended from time and removed from the fast pace of Harvard.
Tonight, they let me come by for a few hours and chat with them—as always, without breaching the confidentiality of the process.
“It’s sort of perpetually 2 a.m. down here,” says Nick Stephanopoulos ’04, one of the two counselors on duty tonight.
“It’s very peaceful,” adds fellow counselor Caroline V. Fletcher ’04. Indeed, the setup is zen and comforting. Three blue couches lined with fat fluffy pillows sit around a coffee table, which is littered with stuffed animals. Serene images of flowers and trickling waterfalls adorn the walls. The floor is carpeted. The heater drones softly.
Stephanopoulos and Fletcher are two of the 30 counselors that help run Room 13, a wide swath of students from different backgrounds, academic pursuits and extracurriculars. “People have a feeling we’re all ‘touchy feely’ liberal arts majors,” says Stephanoploulos. “No one does this for an interest in psychology. All anyone needs is a desire to listen to people.”
The counselors still await their first business. On average, Room 13 receives two to four pieces of business every night (including both phone calls and drop-ins), although Stephanopoulos warns that there is “no typical night.” People who use Room 13 have the option of talking to one of the counselors or both at the same time. “Some people feel more comfortable on the phone because it’s more anonymous,” Fletcher says. “I prefer having a drop-in. It’s comforting to be in the physical presence of somebody else.”
Normally the counselors would be doing any number of things from homework to movies to board games to Instant Messenger. Sometimes, they sit and watch the sky late at night. “We have these little glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling,” jokes Fletcher. “We turn out the lights and stare at the stars. It’s pretty romantic.” Part of the night usually involves sleeping, which can be interrupted at any moment. “I have a lot of weird dreams when I sleep here,” says Stephanopoulos. “There’s sort of this implicit tension that the doorbell might wake you up at any moment.”
Not only are the staff members on call for a 12 hour period, they are also counted on to provide counseling on a wide array of subjects. Unlike other counseling services at Harvard which specialize in one area, Room 13 runs the gamut of issues that a college student can face. Before the first semester begins, staff members undergo a week-long intensive training program run by UHS, teaching them how to deal with anything from depression to eating disorders to sexual identity to suicide. While Room 13 services many weighty issues, they stress that one doesn’t need to have a serious problem to visit. “It seems that a lot of people have the wrong impression that Room 13 is only for people when they’re really stressed,” Stephanopoulos says. “It could be for as little as, ‘I was bored.”
Whether it is boredom or sexual assault, the counselors are trained in how to listen—but not give advice. Stephanopoulos and Fletcher are very clear about the fact that, despite the common misconceptions, Room 13 will not attempt to solve anyone’s problems. “We help drop-ins explore their thoughts and feelings,” Fletcher says. “We’re not your friends, for better or worse—we’re your sounding board.”
Still no one has contacted Room 13. Fletcher and Stephanopoulos tell me how nice it is to have another counselor to talk with during down time. “When you’re in such a small space with only one person for so long, you tend to talk to them a lot,” co-director Alexandra N. Yurkovic ’04 says. While the pair of counselors is good for leisure time, its main purpose is for a support system. “One reason that we counsel in pairs is that it’s easier to go through something together,” says Yurkovic. “Counseling is a big responsibility to take on. You hear some scary things, scary thoughts and sad situations.”
Yet when the problems are severe, counselors feel the reward of offering real help. “In my experience, the most serious drop-ins have been the most wonderful,” says Fletcher. “There have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve been at the right place at the right time.” And they also say their experience has given them better listening skills, a boon in Harvard’s competitive environment. “Now when someone tells you that they have five papers and two tests you listen to them and respond to what they’re saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak,” Stephanopoulos says.
Room 13 places great emphasis on both honesty and confidentiality. It was founded during the Vietnam War as a place where students who feared the establishment could come and discuss various issues. Back then, it was in a room actually numbered 13. “We will never acknowledge that a person has used Room 13 on campus unless that person brings it up,” Stephanopoulos says.
Fletcher has gone to bed. Stephanopoulos lies on the couch and sketches a superhero. Both wait for the doorbell.