Bucknell U.'s online training program is destigmatizing mental health issues

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To destigmatize mental health and increase students’ access to mental health services on campus, Bucknell University has armed its students, faculty and staff with an online training program to help them identify signs of psychological distress in their peers.

“Limited resources and limited access to mental health resources is a real concern,” Kelly Kettlewell, director of the counseling and student development center at Bucknell University, told EdScoop. “And so one of the messages that we feel really strongly about is really building a campuswide program that everyone understands they can play a role in having a healthier, safer campus.”

The virtual program, from health simulation company Kognito, was first implemented at Bucknell three years ago with student athletes on campus, Kettlewell said, and has since been opened up to the entire campus, with more than 1,000 students and faculty having gone through the training so far.

The online training simulation places the learner in a virtual environment where they are able to interact with virtual humans who are exhibiting signs of distress. The tool is designed to teach educators and students how to talk to people who may be struggling with mental health issues, Kognito co-founder and director of research Glenn Albright told EdScoop.

“It’s in practicing these role-plays that you become really good and comfortable at doing these conversations in real life,” he said. “You’re teaching students how to be able to identify signs of psychological distress within their peers, how to approach them and talk to them in a way where they feel comfortable about your concerns and then if necessary kind of motivate them to seek help.”

The program focuses on the importance of being an active listener, asking open-ended questions to start a conversation and affirming the emotions and experiences of students in distress.

“That makes the person feel safe and comfortable and more likely to open up to you because they feel understood and they feel your empathy,” Albright said. “The simulations prepare you to have these difficult conversations, they better prepare you to identify students in distress.”

At Bucknell, Kettlewell said this program has helped destigmatize asking for help from counselors on campus.

“I think the more we have campuswide conversations and we have an athletic coach talking about it, or an RA going through the training, or professor inviting us into a class to talk with their students, the better we’re going to do in making sure that folks understand this is something that’s not only okay to talk about, but important to talk about,” she said.

According to a case study on Bucknell University’s implementation of the online training program, 96% of campus leaders, like faculty or resident assistants, were more likely to approach a student exhibiting signs of psychological distress and discuss their concerns with them. And giving the entire campus community — students, faculty and staff — access to the training program means that the university’s ability to identify and subsequently help students in need of counseling has increased, Kettlewell said.

“When we say everybody has a role in increasing awareness around mental health, decreasing stigma in terms of asking for help, we really do mean everybody,” she said.

As students live off-campus and remain isolated from their normal campus community during the COVID-19 pandemic, being able to reach out and continue conversations around mental health is critically important, Albright said.

“Students who are losing their social networking, their support systems, and sometimes they’re in houses where the stress levels, as a result of being quarantine, are going up,” he said. “And so you have a lot of students who are struggling.”

But training students to have the skills to help their peers and encouraging conversations around mental health to destigmatize asking for help, will serve students far beyond the pandemic and campus life, Kettlewell said.

“These are some of the lessons that the students will carry with them for years to come, and in other roles, whether that’s their family, friendships outside of campus, a coworker in five years,” she said. “I think the goal behind the module … is to really build comfort and confidence in talking about mental health directly and with empathy, and that to me is absolutely a transferable skill I think it really sticks with the students for a long time.”

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