April 14, 2009

New Interactive Training Could Prevent Suicide With Role Play

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One out of every 10 students has seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a 2006 survey released by The American College Health Association.
Universities are increasingly aware of the importance of suicide prevention programs for faculty and staff.
There is an “emerging trend of universities” training faculty and staff on how to “identify, approach and refer students who exhibit signs of mental distress to their campus counseling center,” Ron Goldman, CEO of Kognito Interactive, stated in an e-mail.
To address this need, Kognito has released At-Risk, an online training simulation, in 2008. At-Risk has already been adopted by several New York institutions, including John Jay College, City College of New York, Lehman College and New York University.
“[At-Risk] essentially allows you to role-play without having to feel like you’re being judged, and it gives you options that are relatively realistic about what kinds of things you may choose to do,” said Henry Chung, associate vice president for student health and executive director of the student health center at NYU, in an interview in Inside Higher Ed.
The free At-Risk online demo illustrates the essence of the game without sacrificing too many details. The introduction explains the predicament of a professor who missed the opportunity to help a troubled student due to insufficient training. Then the game provides a few slides of depression-related statistics and explains that it is acceptable and sometimes necessary to approach and refer certain students to the counseling center — the successful negotiation being the game’s intended end result. A tutorial on the game follows explaining that acting for the professor, the player is to choose three out of the six presented students that were in the most immediate distress.
The object is then to interview these three and get them to agree to attend counseling. Players are meant to decide which students are the most “at-risk” for depression or suicide based on grades, attendance, physical appearance and the professor’s comments. The player has certain decisions to make during the interview process — how to phrase certain questions and how and when to bring up certain topics, for example. Although the process should be intuitive, players are provided with an “advice” tab should they need guidance toward the most effective approach.
After the conversation, the game reviews your deficiencies. Certain principles are emphasized. For example, the player is meant to show interest in the student while setting tangible boundaries about how much time and attention they can offer. This barrier’s use is intended to lead the student toward a trained counselor.
Dr. Gregory T. Eells, associate director for Counseling and Psychological Services at Gannett, has tried the demo for himself.
“It does a nice job of role-modeling things. It definitely seems like there could be a value to it. We’ve just already taken a different direction about educating our faculty and staff about these things, because they are very important,” Eells said.
However, he went on to say that “now is not the time to put money into an online service” like At-Risk ($9.95 per user with an anticipated 501 to 2500 users), when Cornell has already put forth resources into the production of the DVD, Notice and Response, and a corresponding program.
Notice and Response is the result of the collaborated effort of CAPS therapists, Health Promotion Gannett staff and Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble. Gannett was given a grant to develop the DVD over the last year. The DVD presents the issues that come up while addressing a student who may be in distress and explains how to broach the subject of anxiety or mental distress and how to shift the focus to a counselor. After a viewing of the DVD in various faculty groups, discussion follows about comfort levels and other relevant concerns.
“As a psychologist, part of what we do is about helping and connecting to people in a real way. The virtual world is not the real world and I think it can help people practice, but it’s not as anxiety-provoking as a real world situation, which has some utility,” he commented.
Whether Cornell would consider instituting a program like the one Kognito has to offer depends on the progress of budget restoration to what it was before this fiscal year.
“A lot of faculty is saying [the DVD] is great. It’s sparked a lot of great discussions. … People in the community are asking for more dialogue,” Eells said. “You’ve gotta tie [any program] to your local resources, to those that are unique to the campus, to be effective,” he said.
“We’ve done a lot of things at a public health level to really shift the culture. There’s been a positive reaction to that. The general response has been, ‘Hey, this is important! The welfare of our students — this is essential,’” he concluded.