Virtual College Mental Health Training for Today’s Student

Virtual college mental health training is a powerful tool that can connect at-risk students to support to help them succeed. Kognito is pleased to announce updates to our evidence-based simulation At-Risk for University Students, now named At-Risk Mental Health for Students.

About At-Risk

With Kognito, simulations, learners engage in hands-on practice leading conversations with virtual students. In the original At-Risk simulation, students learn about psychological distress, how it impacts students, and what they can do when they’re concerned about a peer. They meet their virtual coach get to practice identifying a virtual peer who is at risk and needs help, and engage in a conversation with a virtual friend who is having suicidal thoughts. The goal of the conversation is to tell this friend about support services on campus and encourage him to make an appointment, all while avoiding giving unsolicited advice or being judgmental.

A longitudinal study with over 40,000 students across 100+ institutions showed that the simulation resulted in:

  • Statistically significant increases in participants mental health skills and in the likelihood they would self-refer if they ever experience psychological distress (p<0.05)
  • A 57% average increase in the number of fellow students that participants approached and discussed a referral to support services with within three months following the simulation
  • 98% of students rated the simulation as good, very good, or excellent, and 96% said it was based on scenarios relevant to them as students.

With At-Risk, every client has access to anonymized survey data to track changes across preparedness, confidence, and behaviors in their own student populations. And clients can customize their own campus resources within the simulation to alert and guide students on where to go for help.

Why It Was Time for An Update

At-Risk for University Students launched in 2010, when mental health student needs and breadth of services on campus looked very different from how they do today. A major focus in 2010, and still a focus for today’s campuses, was on building more gatekeeper capacity on campus. That is, ensuring at-risk students are encouraged to seek out services via a wider safety net of students, faculty, and staff who motivate them through conversations.

Over the last decade, mental health stigma has decreased, awareness has increased, and rates of stress, anxiety, and depression have grown. College counseling centers have seen a surge in demand for services that far outweighs their capacity. From 2009 to 2015, counseling center utilization increased by an average of 30-40%, while enrollment grew by only 5%.

Today, colleges and universities want to ensure that their students at highest risk are able to access the individual counseling services and other treatment services they need. The goal then becomes to triage other lower-risk students to services that fit their level of autonomy and self-advocacy. For example, wellness programs or peer support programs can also be adequate campus resources for some students (see our blog post on a stepped care model and where various programs fit). But students may need more guidance in awareness and accessibility of those other mental health services.

What’s New

The new At-Risk, renamed At-Risk Mental Health for Students, was designed to expand student thinking on potential campus resources beyond the counseling center – like wellness programs, social events, and academic counseling.

Resilience: Taking Care of Yourself

There were also growing developments and further research on the importance of resilience among college students. Resilience has a few definitions, including “developed coping techniques that allow people to effectively and relatively easily navigate around or through crises,” and “built on strengths of optimism and positive emotion.”

According to counseling directors at Bentley University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, there is anecdotal evidence to support that today’s students are arriving to campus less “college-ready” and less resilient compared to previous generations. This means that students seem less able to tolerate difficult situations.

In tandem, emotional fragility can be a predictor of suicidal ideation. Predictors of a suicide attempt include hopeless and stressful events. And many suicide attempts are often preceded by a series of stressful events. So by reducing the frequency of stressful events, via resilience training, students can better manage everyday potholes and mature their emotional and personal development.

Therefore, At-Risk Mental Health for Students features brand new content with a focus on coping and resiliency skills to promote student success. The simulation now features activities to practice self-reflection, reflect on current habits, and make an action plan for practicing self-care based on their own motivators and preferences.

2010 Learning Objectives 2020 Learning Objectives
  • Increase knowledge and awareness about mental health and suicide
  • Identify warning signs of psychological distress, including verbal, behavioral, and situational clues
  • Build skills in how to approach a peer in a manner to motivate them to access support
  • Recognize when they themselves need support
  • Understand the school’s specific process for student referral and counseling services
  • Know how to help a friend if they are uncomfortable talking with them about their concern
  • Recognize and identify the signs of psychological distress in self and peers
  • Utilize effective communication techniques to talk with a peer who shows signs of distress
  • Understand, refer, and utilize available support services
  • Use strategies to increase resiliency and practice self-reflection


Supporting a Friend

Those familiar with the original At-Risk will recognize a few things in the new version. Each student is introduced to a virtual coach who guides them through the learning material and conversations.

There is an updated exercise where learners must identify which of virtual friends is at-risk and needs help.

And just like in the original At-Risk, you may recognize Travis. Travis is the virtual student with whom learners practice having a conversation with. Travis is now in a new virtual apartment with an updated story, but includes similar practice of evidence-based communication techniques that our clients will recognize.

In addition to talking with Travis, more virtual students and their stories have been added to the new version of At-Risk. They have been designed to apply to not only first-year students but all undergraduates,  Their stories encompass wider diversity including a first-generation student, international students, with a range of majors and interests.

While the primary audience of the simulation is undergraduate students, the learning experience was designed to be applicable to many groups of students in mind, including graduate students, part-time students, community college students, and adult learners. This also applies to students of different knowledge levels and experiences. The dynamic learning experience within Kognito simulations meets learners where they are when it comes to previous experience with mental health training, students at students with their own history of mental health concerns, and schools with different availability of resources.

Developing New Virtual Mental Health Training

Behind the scenes, the Kognito team worked with subject matter experts from JED, and representatives from colleges and universities. The new simulation was also tested with real college students.

Functionally, you may notice some changes as well. Our team upgraded graphics with more contemporary virtual humans, detailed campus environments, and faster loading times. For our clients, there are improved administrative functions and resource template organization.

Applying Virtual College Mental Health Training in a COVID-19 World

Many unknowns remain for what’s to come this fall semester, including whether or not students will be on campus. What is clear is that there will be an imperative need for students to learn about mental health, peer support, coping, and resiliency. As well as a need of what services are available through campuses, and how to access them.

The scenarios featured in At-Risk Mental Health for Students do take place in-person, typically in campus environments. However, the skill-building embedded is designed for any face-to-face conversation, whether it be in-person or across a laptop screen. At-Risk is designed to build protective factors that can be applied in a variety of situations, and will ultimately improve a student’s ability to succeed. Campus resources are customizable and can be updated depending regularly if and when things change.

In addition, implementing a Kognito virtual college mental health training is flexible. With online access to simulations, students can complete the simulation from anywhere, and at either an arranged time or on their own time.

Ready to Learn More?

As you get ready for a new school year, do you have a virtual college mental health training in place, or is your current solution sufficient? At-Risk can easily be incorporated into a new student or transfer student orientation. The simulation is also designed to complement our new Sexual Misconduct Prevention for Students and our upcoming Alcohol and Other Drugs Prevention simulation.

Don’t miss our on-demand webinar on the launch of At-Risk Mental Health for Students, where we were joined by speakers from JED and Bucknell University.

A demo version of the new At-Risk Mental Health for Students is available here.

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