Supporting Students In Stress: Q&A With Heidi Allstop Of Student Spill
- October 4th, 2011
- 4 Comments
It’s not news that students are dealing with stress, but that they’re helping each other out (anonymously) to deal with their issues?? Now that’s a new twist on a big problem, and that’s exactly what Student Spill enables them to do.
Student Spill is a website that allows students to talk about the issues they’re dealing with and receive advice from a fellow student trained to help (called “student supporters”), all without names. They’re matched up, peer to peer, so students in need get help with their problems from a student like them who has been through a similar situation before.
Since its inception in early 2009, Student Spill has not only provided support for hundreds of students, it’s prevented 8 suicides, getting students to help within an hour or two. Such crises don’t go to student supporters, but instead go to trained professionals for immediate help.
The website is the brainchild of Heidi Allstop, who came up with the idea for the site while dealing with some pretty heavy issues of her own as a student at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She talks about student stress, the success of Student Spill, and her plans for helping students nationwide below.
Heidi Allstop: When I was in college, like a lot of students, I had trouble adjusting, was feeling insecure and self-conscious. Students have friends who are willing to listen, but they don’t want to burden other people with their problems. I called the student counseling center and was told there was a two week wait to see a counselor (at many schools the wait is as long as five weeks!). By that time students’ problems have changed and it’s too late to give them the support they need.
I recognized this was a problem that needed to be solved. I took the idea to a student organization fair and 120 people signed up to help get it started! I had been a crisis counselor before and had a handbook for helping teens who were runaways or who were dealing with other issues. I updated the manual to make it more college appropriate and used it to train other students (more on that in a bit…). By the end of the semester, we had the site up for students to start spilling and already had chapters forming at six other universities.
By the time I was graduating, we had chapters at four more schools, and three were paying for the service we were providing. I decided to make it a business and devote myself to building the program full time.
YP: How many chapters do you have now? Are you mostly working with large universities?
HA: We’re in 18-20 schools right now. Mostly large institutions, but we’re also working with community colleges. Students there often have full-time jobs and can’t get to the student counseling center before it closes.
YP: How do you get involved with schools?
HA: In the past, we’ve presented the program as a way to improve student retention and for crisis prevention. My mission is to give all students access to our programs, even if the schools aren’t willing to pay for our services.
We gather non-identifying data on the cases we handle — age, gender, class standing, etc. — and provide that to the universities at a cost so they can learn about what issues their students are dealing with so they can address any problems. Whenever we see concerning trends, such as a spike in the number of sexual assaults on a campus, we alert the school.
We also work closely with counseling centers to clarify misconceptions about today’s students. They are generally supportive, but we still find them holding on to the old-school mentality that, to be meaningful, counseling has to happen face-to-face. We try to explain that students are used to connecting and relating online now, and that we don’t want to replace the work that they do, but to be a stepping stone for students who don’t want to go to a counseling center just yet. Hearing from a peer can also be impactful, and when appropriate, peers can also suggest reaching out for face-to-face counseling in a more approachable way.
We hear more from students than university personnel that our service is needed. Students know what they’re dealing with, while administrators tend to think with their checkbooks and worry about the cost.
YP: How many spills do you get in a typical day, and what are the problems students are talking about?
HA: We received about 10 to 20 spills a day last year, but we expect more this year because we have more schools participating.
About two-thirds of the spills are less serious — school stress, roommate issues, romantic issues. Generally they’re just opening up about things they just want to get off their chests. The other third are more serious — eating disorders, sexual assault, drug abuse. When necessary, we elevate those cases to professionals.
YP: How do you select and train student supporters?
HA: We don’t exclude anyone who wants to participate because we want students who spill to be able to talk to students they can relate to. It doesn’t matter if they’re students who’ve had their fair share of problems or if they’re straight A students — everyone has something to offer. Moreover, a student spilling about a drug issue doesn’t necessarily want advice from the class valedictorian; they want to hear from someone who understands what they’re going through.
Student supporters are trained to get the word out on campus and about available resources. They learn active listening skills face-to-face, and then practice scenarios in workshops. Eventually they train one-on-one sending spills to each other and answering them. There is an online component to reinforce what they’ve learned in person, including an online quiz that they must pass. Finally, they sign a confidentiality agreement and complete an evaluation about past struggles they’ve dealt with and what issues they feel comfortable responding to.
We have a three-strikes policy. If a student supporter is late, absent, or sends inappropriate feedback, they’re warned and eventually removed if they don’t correct the behavior.
At the University of Wisconsin Madison, we have 475 student supporters. They get five to 10 spills to respond to per semester, while also performing community service and making a difference on campus, all without having to attend club meetings because it’s all online.
YP: We’ve seen a lot of recent research about student stress being higher than ever. Do you see that as well? What’s driving it?
HA: Yes, we see that too. School stress is one of the top three issues we hear about. I also saw the study that found that stress is at an all-time high for college freshmen, but we now also have better ways to assess it. College is difficult for everyone, but students today face different issues than their parents did. There’s a lot of research about the effects of social media on mental health. Students are more connected, so you’d think they’d be happier, but that’s not the case. They go on Facebook and see everyone else having a good time, and feel bad because they’re not a part of it. Technology comes up in a lot of student spills — not as the problem, but playing a part in the issue.
YP: Aside from growing Student Spill with more colleges, what other plans do you have? Will you be taking this to high schools?
HA: Yes, we’re looking at a high school program, and even a middle school program. Those students are more volatile, so we might be dealing with more crises than among college students. The issue we’re facing is that students under age 18 can’t bind themselves in a contract and can’t accept responsibility for what they say in writing. So if something bad happens, it’s not on them, it’s on Student Spill. We’re also not sure who should respond to younger students, if it should be college students or students their age.