A new online training simulation using avatars is being offered to Oregon State students, staff and faculty to help gain skills around mental health and suicide prevention. Called Kognito, the program has two different learning modules, a peer-to-peer training for students and a faculty and staff module to help campus employees interact with students in possible distress.

Bonnie Hemrick, a mental health promotion specialist with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Oregon State, said her office has been asked for a number of years about specialized training to support students in distress.

“There are already conversations happening on campus about this issues, and this is just another tool we can provide,” Hemrick said. The simulation helps participants identify people at risk and then navigates users through conversations that can be difficult and at times confrontational, giving them coaching and the skills to keep the discussion sensitive and on-topic.

“Our hope is that this will encourage a community of caring in which we all look out for one another,” Hemrick said. “This training should provide the skills and confidence to intervene when we see someone who is struggling.”

A recent study by the American College Health Association found that 60 percent of college students experience periods of overwhelming anxiety, and more than one-quarter of students experience feelings of depression. For 15 percent of the student population, those feelings directly affect their academic performance.

“We did a survey of campus a few years ago, and students indicated that when they were bringing up mental health issues, they felt those issues were getting minimized,” Hemrick said. The program coaches both peers and staff on appropriate ways to interact with students who may be in crises, or who at the least could use support and access to resources.

Kognito is just one portion of OSU’s attempt to address mental health of students and faculty. Recently the university required all Oregon State syllabi to include a “Reach Out For Success” statement that encourages students to consider reaching out to an instructor or academic advisor if they are struggling. The Kognito program is aimed at supporting the syllabus statement by helping academic faculty feel prepared for those conversations

Hemrick said Kognito was selected because of how interactive the modules are and how much market testing was done on the program. She also said she likes how realistic the interactions are and how they don’t shy away from how awkward and difficult such conversations can be.

“They don’t sugar coat it,” she said. Sometimes, if the conversation doesn’t go well, the student avatar even becomes hostile or withdraws. When the user gets stuck or confused, there’s a virtual coach to make useful suggestions. And there’s summary after each interaction to help participants see what worked and what didn’t in the scenario.

“It feels very real,” Hemrick said. And the program focuses on skills that can be useful in a broad range of situations.

The program is not mandatory at this point but could become so in the future. It is not a pilot product, Hemrick said, instead it was seen as so useful that it’s already become part of CAPS’ annual budget. It is being housed in the Learning Library section of the Bridge Learning Management System so that everyone will have access to the program.

Employees can access Kognito here: 


The student module is available here: