Gaming technology used for suicide prevention

March 2, 2018 Staff Writer

Schools can face challenges in identifying and supporting students who are suffering from emotional distress, whether because of depression, suicidal tendencies, LGBTQ bullying, or a host of other issues.

With recent legislation requiring all middle and high schools in California to provide mandatory suicide prevention education, some schools are turning to online simulation programs to educate staff about identifying and supporting at-risk students.

Combining gaming and learning technology with the art of conversation, these programs provide hands-on practice by having users interact with virtual students in role-playing scenarios – from a new girl who is being teased by a clique of popular girls, to a boy with poor attendance and drug use. Teachers select responses and receive feedback that helps them learn what to say to students and how to apply their training in the classroom.

More than 11,000 schools around the country are using products developed by the health simulation company Kognito. Redwood City’s Sequoia Union High School District has taken the lead in California. Wellness Coordinator Karen Li introduced the Kognito product to former Superintendent Jim Lianides after she studied recommendations by other users, including the 10th largest school district in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

Products combining gaming and learning technology provide hands-on practice in leading challenging conversations about mental health.

Other districts, including San Mateo Union High School District, have adopted the online simulation program to help teachers and staff gain skills to identify and refer students showing signs of psychological distress. The Placer County Office of Education is providing the simulations to educators in 125 schools across the county’s 16 districts, and more than 20 other California districts and county offices of education are doing likewise.

Sequoia UHSD serves approximately 9,000 students and is a socio-economically and culturally diverse district of six high schools. Even before the mandates of Assembly Bill 2246 to adopt formal suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention protocols, Li brought her background as a pediatrician to the project. She responded to studies and data that reflected an increased need for mental health intervention, as well as staff requests for training. “Surrounding communities had experienced suicide clusters, and we wanted to be proactive,” Li said.

Lianides was committed to health and wellness and liked the simulations as a tool to fulfill a portion of the suicide prevention requirements. Current Superintendent Mary Streshly continues to support the program.

“Mental health is a priority for our districts and optimizing technology to better equip our staff to support students is invaluable,” Streshly said.

More than 775 staff have completed two Kognito modules, “At Risk for High School Educators” and the LGBTQ module “Step In, Speak Up!” In addition, more than 2,000 students have received Kognito’s “Friend2Friend” online training.

In professional development modules, educators “talk” with fully animated virtual students, developing motivational interviewing techniques. Users try different conversation paths that show how a student responds to each option, both verbally and with body language. They then receive real-time feedback from a virtual coach, who suggests techniques to continue the discussion based on the user’s conversation choices.

A longitudinal study conducted with 68,000 K-12 school educators found that the Kognito simulation resulted in increases of 31 percent to 71 percent in the number of students that educators approached to discuss their concerns and referred to mental health resources. The study also found that the increases in skill and motivation to approach students were sustained over time.

Li pointed out that selecting health and wellness initiatives for implementation requires diligence and study. “With any program, doing your research is imperative,” she said. “You have to consider the culture of your schools.” The online simulation model works well for her district, since it is tech-oriented with Silicon Valley ties.

But, Li added, the products can benefit any K-12 school district. “Kognito provides interactive and relatable tools for schools to offer mental health training to staff and students,” she said. With a reported staff satisfaction rate of 97 to 98 percent, their online learning platform has been a success in the Sequoia Union HSD and in school districts across the country. Find out more about Kognito at

The online simulations can be efficiently rolled into existing professional development dates, and trainings can be completed on a teacher’s desktop computer. Two staff modules typically take 90 minutes to complete, Li said. It has scalability, as well, and there are plans to roll out training to Sequoia UHSD’s K-8 feeder districts.

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