For the past three years, UCR faculty and staff have utilized an online training simulation designed to help people identify and respond to students who may be experiencing psychological distress. The software, called “At-Risk University and College Students,” was developed by Kognito, a health simulation company based in New York.

The software simulates conversations, giving the user options on what to say or do when presented with a simulated scenario, such as a depressed or agitated student seeking guidance. The data gathered by interactions with the machine is processed and analyzed, after which it aids the learning algorithms in understanding human behavior a little better. The goal of this software is not to diagnose problems, but instead to help people — in this case authority figures like faculty and staff — understand mental health issues better and provide them with the confidence necessary to handle a situation and refer people to useful resources like the WELL or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

The company website states that they “have pioneered and studied a new approach to build and assess the capacity of people to lead real-life conversations that result in measurable changes in social, emotional and physical health.” To better understand this process, the Highlander spoke with co-founder and director of research at Kognito, Dr. Glenn Albright.

“Preparedness, likelihood and efficacy are measured in baseline right after the survey then three months later. Then you analyze it statistically and you see rather significant changes in all these variables … You’re changing the way people feel about being gatekeepers,” said Dr. Albright. He went on to say that some of the advantages to using this software is that people are more inclined to act and speak confidently when they know they are engaging with a simulation, and not an actual person. “To have this practice in a simulated environment … in a safe environment, that’s pretty cool. That’s going to enable you to do it in real life … They’re more likely to open up.”

According to the WELL’s Mental Health Educator Connie Marmolejo, “Each version, depending on what you take, is different. So for instance the staff version will give you different scenarios of a student who might be going through a tough time, and then the simulation aspect would be an online coach.” This ‘coach’ then guides the participant to make choices to better help them understand how to approach someone who is distressed. The data is collected and used to improve the software.

Both Dr. Albright and Marmolejo hope that this technology will help reduce stigmas concerning mental health, which would ideally create an environment where people can feel more comfortable both with dealing with mental health issues, as well as asking for help. Marmolejo said that students who took the software felt it was beneficial: “What I’ve heard from students that have taken it … is that they really like it because it provides them a step-by-step process. And they can always refer back to it in case they have more questions.”

Implementation of the software was made possible through a grant from SAMHSA. Marmolejo hopes that there will be some way to continue using the simulation training, as she has reported a largely positive response from faculty and staff who have received the online training.

Editor’s note: This article was corrected to reflect the correct title for the type of company that Kognito is, as well as where the grant came from.