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Adolescent mental health had been declining in the decade before the pandemic. The last two years have only worsened what many advocates and experts say is a mental health crisis among teens.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 4 in 10 teens reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national state of emergency for children’s mental health. In its report, the AAP called on policymakers and advocates to “meet these challenges through innovation and action, using state, local and national approaches to improve the access to and quality of care across the continuum of mental health promotion, prevention, and treatment.”

Glenn Albright, a professor and clinical psychologist at Baruch College at the City University of New York, may have an idea to help educators taking care of those teens: virtual role-play simulation.

Albright is co-founder and director of research of Kognito, a company that develops online role-play simulations to train educators and healthcare professionals to have conversations with young people on mental health, substance use, suicide prevention and LGBTQ+ issues. The simulations allow learners to enter a virtual environment and role play with virtual students who are manifesting signs of psychological distress, according to Albright.

“When they’re role playing with what we’ll call an emotionally responsive, intelligent virtual character, that’s a student that also possesses emotions and memory. You get practice at having these conversations so you can apply the skills in real life,” Albright said.

Related: Rethinking campus mental health to better serve LGBTQ+ students and others

Kognito’s virtual simulation training specifically for high school teachers, staff and administrators is meant to help those educators become effective gatekeepers. “Gatekeeper” is a term commonly used in the mental health community for someone who’s been trained to identify students in psychological distress, talk to them, and if necessary, make a referral to mental health support services.

One scenario in the simulation involves a virtual student who’s academically at risk, with poor attendance, and is suspected of using substances and bullying. The educator practices how to respond to the virtual human using evidence-based communication skills. If the educator says something insensitive or makes a misstep, for example, the student in the scenario reacts negatively. For further guidance, a virtual coach provides real-time feedback on how to navigate the conversation correctly.

High school educators can learn to identify and address student mental health issues using a virtual simulation program. Credit: Screenshot of Kognito demo

“These are skills like asking open-ended questions and just affirming that the student is doing a great job and coming to you, creating a safe environment,” Albright said.

Albright said there’s an urgent need for educators to learn skills like these because the incidence of psychological distress in young people is so high. Teachers, administrators and other school staff are in a “really good position” to identify students experiencing mental health crises because they see them every day, he said.

“They can kind of be the eyes and ears of student mental health,” Albright said. “When trained as gatekeepers, they can get these students the help they need.”

Related: Schools struggle to help students return to class after a mental health crisis

Albright and a team of fellow researchers look at the impact of the high school educator simulation program in a new study published in The Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science. They spent several years examining the simulation’s effectiveness in the study of more than 31,000 educators in 43 states and five U.S. territories.

When the pandemic hit, Albright and the other researchers continued to gather data. They found that the educators who received the training, which is offered completely online, were able to apply what they’d learned in the virtual simulation to the remote learning environment, Albright said.

Overall, an online simulation isn’t necessarily more effective than in-person training, he said. But the data he and his colleagues collected shows that the educators in an online interaction are still able to learn important skills and discern which students need help.

“By practicing this online,” Albright said, “you become confident that you can do better, you’re prepared to have these conversations. And then when you meet someone like that, in the real classroom, you can handle a situation quite effectively.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.

This story about virtual simulation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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