Student Spill provides anonymous support through website

by Barbara Platts / Beacon Staff • February 9, 2012

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This look familiar? It is a Student Spill advertisement that the executive board posted throughout the campus.
Photo Courtesy of Student Spill at Emerson
This look familiar? It is a Student Spill advertisement that the executive board posted throughout the campus.
Photo Courtesy of Student Spill at Emerson

Sometimes it is easier to tell a complete stranger a secret. That is the philosophy that the Emerson chapter of Student Spill, an anonymous email-based college support network holds. The organization was launched in 2009, but came to Emerson last fall.   

President and founder of Student Spill at Emerson, Sarah Benkendorf, said she first read about the organization on HerCampus.com last spring and immediately connected to it.

“The site really struck a chord with me,” said the writing, literature, and publishing major. “It sounded like something I could have used my freshman year.”

Student Spill is by, for, and about college students. The site is a safe and confidential place where individuals with a college email address can go to confess their problems. Their message  gets sent to fellow peers in their community who are trained to offer support, according to Benkendorf.

Students write to the site with all types of problems, Benkendorf said. The three most common issues are romantic relationships, school-related problems, and handling stress, according to statistics released by the national organization.

 The chapter is made up of seven executive board members who are students at Emerson. Benkendorf said they are currently the only ones at the school replying to messages, but they are in the process of training more. 

 Benkendorf said 10 students attended the organization’s first training event on Monday and learned how to become supporters who respond to spills from peers. The training lasts an hour and teaches them how to appropriately reply to a message. They teach them to not sound condescending and to reply with personal experiences that relate to the person’s problem. Each response is also required to have two outside resources that could help the confessor, such as a counseling or advising center on campus, according to Benkendorf.   

 Rachel Gordon, the vice president of confidentiality for Student Spill at Emerson, helped start the organization with Benkendorf.

 “It’s a really great resource, especially if you don’t want to talk face to face,” the sophomore communication science and disorders major said. 

The volunteers, who are not paid, are trained so they can respond to spills in the most helpful and prompt way possible, waiting no more than 24 hours to offer support. 

Student Spill was founded by Heidi Allstop in 2009, while she was studying at the University of Wisconsin Madison, according to Lauren Heilbrunn, the national adviser for Spill, Inc. Allstop was inspired to start the site after experiencing trouble adjusting to college life. She felt it was important for students to have a support system of peers who can relate, Benkendorf said. 

 Two years later, the website has now helped start organizations at 13 colleges, but still allows anyone with an .edu email address, whose college isn’t affiliated with the site, to seek support for their problems, Heilbrunn said.  

After hearing about the organization last spring, Benkendorf contacted the national headquarters. They replied in the summer and began working with her to start the organization at Emerson. Benkendorf said the Emerson chapter  has not received student government recognition, but hopes to apply again next fall once they have accomplished more. 

“We just haven’t done enough yet to gain recognition,” Benkendorf said. “We would like to have 30 supporters by the end of the semester,” said Benkendorf.

Sophomore Lauren Moquin has  worked on the executive board answering spills since last fall. The journalism major said it’s nice to see people be honest about obstacles they are facing in their lives.

“I was surprised at how open people were,” said Moquin. “They are willing to offer up how they really feel.” 

However helpful it may be to users, the executive board admits that they are not professionals when it comes to dealing  with mental health issues. Supporters are trained to give at least two outside resources in their responses. Often, the counseling center is one of them. 

“It’s important to have both,” Benkendorf said. “Some people don’t feel comfortable with the counseling center right away. They might feel like their problems aren’t important enough. We are the first step.”  

Counseling center staff were not available for immediate comment. 

Sophomore Hannah Try heard about Student Spill from Gordon last spring. The visual and media arts major attended the training on Monday and said she is eager to finally get involved. 

“It’s good to see it actually up and going,” said Try. 

Benkendorf hopes that the organization gives students a healthy outlet where they can go to realize they are not alone in their worries and problems.

“Everyone here always appears like they have it all together,” Benkendorf said. “I want people to know that not everyone always has it all together, and there are people like you that understand.” 

The Student Spill team will have another training event for students interested in becoming supporters next Monday in the multi-purpose room at 7 p.m.