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Computer simulation helps Texas State community navigate a mental health crisis

Kognito's simulator allows students and faculty at universities to walk through different mental health scenarios and provides information about resources offered by those universities. Texas State University currently uses it.

The need to focus on mental health has become increasingly important during the coronavirus pandemic. All age groups are feeling isolated. For college kids, sometimes that means being isolated on campus or being isolated at home while taking classes virtually.

Students have responded in different ways, says Richard Martinez, coordinator of educational programming and outreach at Texas State University, where he also works as a psychologist in the school's counseling center. Some students, he says, have adapted to a new routine. Other students have struggled to find that new routine and structure around remote learning.

This age group of students is particularly important when it comes to mental health, Martinez says, because biologically between 18 to 24 is when people typically experience the onset of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or might experience anxiety, depression or mania for the first time. There are also a lot of life transitions such as leaving home, entering first relationships, juggling jobs and going to school.

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One tool available to all students and the faculty at Texas State is a simulation program called Kognito that is available through the university's online portal.

In a choose-your-own-adventure kind of way, an avatar has you as a student talking to a friend who has been overwhelmed or disconnected. Every minute it stops and give you choices for what to say next. If you make a choice that is unhelpful, the program offers information about why that might not be a good choice and gives you an "undo" feature. It also offers coaching if you're not sure which answer to choose. 

When they role play in a virtual environment, students and faculty are less likely to feel anxious about having the right answer, says Glenn Albright, co-founder and director of research at Kognito, They can see how different scenarios might play out and later pick a better response in real life. 

In the faculty version, a professor is meeting with a student during office hours when the student reveals that he is failing everything and says, "What's the point?" The faculty version also has a meter that measures the student's comfort level with the professor's responses.

Embedded in each university's Kognito programs are the mental health resources for that campus. 

Kognito also has adjusted the simulation to have more information about self-care, resiliency and self-empowerment because of COVID-19. 

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Kognito for students has a friend talking to another friend about not hearing from them in a while.

Texas State has been working with Kognito since 2013 to train its residential advisers in dorm rooms, as well as different campus groups and the faculty. It's advertised as part of the new student orientation, but Martinez says they could do more to promote it. About 4,000 people have gone through the simulations.

The advantage of using a simulation program like Kognito is that "you're not going through this for the first time," Martinez says. "Having practices makes people feel more comfortable," he says, as well as be less likely to say the wrong thing or to ignore warning signs. Students, he says, also might learn vicariously through the program about their own mental health warning signs and what steps they can take when they feel distressed.

Kognito helps faculty members learn how to recognize warning signs in students and how to encourage students to seek help from the counseling center.

Kognito's research backs that up and has shown that students who go through the simulation program are more likely to go to the counseling center than those who haven't, Albright says. 

Kognito also helps change people's attitudes about their abilities to talk to a friend or a student about their mental health. They can become gatekeepers who can identify people in psychological distress and motivate them to seek help, Albright says. 

Nicole Villalpando writes about parenting for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at nvillalpando@statesman.com.