When Virginia Polytechnic Institute senior Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life on April 16, 2007, it was a wakeup call about shortcomings in the way colleges and universities approached student mental health.

Cho had a history of depression and anxiety disorders dating back to middle school and had exhibited alarming behavior on campus, including stalking two female students and submitting disturbing creative writing assignments that prompted at least one professor to urge him to get counseling. Yet he slipped through the cracks, in part because of a lack of communication between different campus constituencies that were aware of his conduct.

One of the enduring legacies of the Virginia Tech tragedy has been an effort by campuses nationwide to augment their mental health and suicide prevention programs. Initiatives have ranged from establishing interdisciplinary teams to share information about students demonstrating signs of emotional instability, to integrating communication between health and counseling services, to training gatekeepers such as residence hall staff, academic advisors, faculty and students to recognize and respond to students in crisis.

Growing emphasis on gatekeeper training has also led to the development of innovative new tools like Kognito At-Risk, an online role-play simulation that has been adopted by more than 350 schools to date. The program utilizes a combination of gaming technology, the science of learning, and interactive conversations with emotionally responsive virtual humans to help students, faculty, staff and administrators build the knowledge, confidence, and real-life conversational skills to approach and connect troubled students to mental health resources.

“The Virginia Tech shootings made it clear many students do not reach out for help when they are in distress. That’s why gatekeepers who have close personal contact with individual students can play such an important role,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and chief medical officer of The Jed Foundation. “People need to have enough information and confidence in their ability to recognize a student or classmate in distress and help get them into care, and that’s where gatekeeper training comes in.”

New Approach Needed

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students in the US, outstripped only by accidents. As many as 1,400 students die by suicide every year, according to Schwartz. Thousands of others – 6 percent of undergraduate students and 4 percent of graduate students – seriously consider taking their own lives, according to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment.

Many students grapple with other mental health issues as well. Surveys by Healthy Minds Network indicate that 32 percent are dealing with a mental illness, with 5 percent screening positive for panic disorders, 6 percent for anxiety disorders, 9 percent for major depression, and 15 percent for self-injuring without thoughts of suicide at any given time.

Yet only 40 percent of students with mental illness seek professional help, and the Virginia Tech rampage was a stark illustration that the usual lectures, in-person workshops and Power Point-style online courses designed to raise awareness of mental health issues were falling short in helping get more students in need into treatment.

Schools needed to engage the entire campus community in a way that would do a better job of motivating students suffering from conditions like extreme depression to seek help. Student training in particular became a high priority, given that 67 percent of college students tell a friend they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else.

“In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, we decided to apply our simulation technology to address this urgent need. We recognized that without providing faculty with practice in leading these critical conversations, they would be unlikely to build the skills and confidence to engage in and lead similar conversations in real life,” said Ron Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Kognito. “We wanted to go beyond building awareness and knowledge to changing real-life behaviors in order to increase the number of at-risk students who get help as early as possible.”

(Next page: Digital simulations for campus suicide prevention; seeing results)

About the Author:

Rena Wish Cohen is a freelance contributor to eCampus News.


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