Virtual Humans in the Classroom: High School Students Practice Mental Health Skills
What is the mental health climate like in Los Alamos High School, and why was it important to reach out to students?
Los Alamos is in northern New Mexico and the school district is in the town of Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was created. Because of the national laboratory, we are one of the highest Ph.D. per capita communities in the U.S. So, in our community, there’s a lot of pressure for academic performance. There are high levels of stress and high levels of anxiety and depression among our students.
Within the last five years, our community has lost both high school students and recent grads of Los Alamos High School to suicide. Because of the overwhelming amount of loss that we have experienced as a school district, everyone started talking about it. These concerns led to the formation of a Mental Health Design Team which identified the available resources, listed the known gaps and needs, and made recommendations to address these challenges. Our school board then prioritized student and staff well-being as focus areas in their strategic plan and created the Healthy Schools Initiative to support those efforts.
How did you hear about Friend2Friend and decide to use it with your students?
As a Freshman Academy counselor, I was tasked with teaching suicide prevention and awareness for all ninth-grade students. When I presented the first few years, it was a PowerPoint with a little bit of testimony…basically, I didn’t have any other reference point for how to present. In hindsight looking back, it wasn’t very interactive. I didn’t feel like it made as much of an impact.
Kristine [Coblentz, Director of the Healthy Schools Initiative for Los Alamos Public Schools] mentioned Kognito in the fall. I was a little skeptical because I feel like technology is overkill. But I sat down and took it and was like, wow, I feel like this could be…this could really have an impact. So, I actually went through the program myself and felt like it was very applicable. I felt like the scenario was realistic, it wasn’t corny…I felt like this had potential to really reach the students.
What were the components in your new presentation on suicide prevention?
When I presented this year, I basically changed the whole presentation. I used a clip of Kevin Hines, a suicide survivor…it’s a nine-minute interview where he shares his story. It was very sobering. You could have heard a pin drop in the class.
And then I used that to start a conversation with the students after the clip. I’m asking them “do you really think it’s a situation where these individuals don’t care or are they afraid to ask? Maybe they don’t know how?” So we talked about the fear factor and that sometimes we’re afraid to reach out because we don’t know what it’s going to involve.
And that was my segway for going into the Kognito presentation, “for those of you who have never had this experience, for those of you who don’t know how to have this conversation, you’re going to have the opportunity to go through this individualized computer simulation that will give you some of the skills that you need to either reach out and help somebody else or find help for yourself.”
What makes the simulation unique compared to a traditional presentation?
The thing that’s lovely about the simulation is that you are doing it in the privacy of your own little bubble. Nobody can see what their answers were, nobody can see if they ask the wrong questions, if they make the wrong assumptions in the simulation. It coaches you through. It helps you to understand, well that might be too judgmental, or you’re jumping to conclusions or you’re not really listening. If you’re doing that in a public venue, in a peer group or with adults, you’re embarrassed, your tendency is not to participate or not to engage.
The nice thing about the simulation is that it allows for that practice without an audience and without having to worry about what someone else is going to think or say in response to how you respond.
What sorts of reactions did you get from your students?
I had a little bit of discussion at the end. The classes that I went into, they ranged from about 22 to 30 students. I got more participation in conversations than I had in the past when I did larger PE classes. I feel like the biggest factor is having more of an intimate setting where you can have more of a discussion and asking some leading questions for these kids to get them to talk.
I was amazed at the results of the surveys when Kristine sent me the data. I wouldn’t have guessed by the reactions that we got in the classroom. I felt like it landed and it helped some of the students, but kids are just hard to read sometimes. I did not expect the results to be as positive as they were. I felt like, okay, I can definitely take this and continue to do this here, every year, working with the ninth graders and feeling like it’s going to make a difference.
Have you seen a difference in how students are approaching you?
I think the kids were pleasantly surprised. Some of them, based on their survey responses, shared that they really feel like they came away from the simulation with some tools and with some ideas about how to approach things and how to talk to their friends, or for themselves to reach out and find the help they need with a trusted adult, whether that be family, teacher, coach, counselor.
It definitely stirs the pot. I had more students coming in and sharing concerns about their friends than I had prior. So I feel like it opens up the door. They connect with me in a way that they maybe haven’t otherwise. I feel like the students are talking about it more, they’re more apt to get help outside of school.
Logistically, how were you able to reach all your ninth graders?
I went into all the physics classes, so I did 13 presentations in a week. The presentation took about an hour and 15 minutes, it depends on the student participation. There were some classes that were more engaged and wanted to have more discussion, some of them wanted to share a personal story.
I want the kids to drive it. So giving them the opportunity to have the discussion about it was really important to me.
I happened to present this year the first week of December. It’s the first full semester of high school that’s coming to an end and the students are amped up about finals week coming up. So that’s when we have found that it makes sense to present. We’re trying to help students keep things in perspective, find the help they need, reach out to the people in their lives that they might be concerned about, find the resources that are available in our school.
What’s your plan for reaching your next class of ninth graders?
It’s early on, with this program in particular. I’ll have a better idea going forward next year when we have more data later on down the road. I feel like students definitely have an open door. We’ve had students go to their teachers, we’ve had students come to me directly. But overall I feel like we’re not getting to that point of crisis. We’re not getting as frequently to that point of “I want to take my life.” But more like, “I’m stressed, I’m overwhelmed, and I need help.”
I feel like the intervention piece is there. I’m really hopeful going forward of being preventive and proactive rather than reactive. That’s my goal.
We hope other schools find Michelle’s advice useful when thinking about how to approach mental health topics and suicide prevention curriculum with students. Many thanks to Michelle for her time, and to Kristine Coblentz.
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