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Virtual reality training shapes Wash U faculty into 'gatekeepers' for students' mental health

Dr. Cheri LeBlanc (left) and  Jordan Worthington (right) talked about the state of mental health on college campuses.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
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Dr. Cheri LeBlanc (left) and Jordan Worthington (right) talked about the state of mental health on college campuses.

In recent years, colleges and universities have seen a spike in students reporting mental-health challenges and seeking out psychological services.

Administrators have been searching for ways to address this increase, and Washington University in St. Louis has piloted a new virtual-reality training program this year in an attempt to do just that.

The program is called At Risk for College and University Faculty and Staff, and it aims to give faculty members the tools to identify and address students suffering from mental-health challenges such as depression.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the new program and the state of mental health on college campuses more broadly with two mental-health professionals from Wash U: Jordan Worthington, the university’s assistant director of mental-health outreach and programming, and Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, executive director of the Habif Health and Wellness Center.

He was also joined by Dr. Glenn Albright. Albright is the co-founder and director of research at Kognito, the health-simulation company responsible for At Risk for College and University Faculty and Staff.

Albright said that the goal of the simulation is to ensure that university faculty and staff “learn the skills, knowledge and self-confidence to have what can be really difficult conversations with students in real life.”

He explained that there is evidence to suggest that faculty and staff have the capacity to be “effective gatekeepers” for moderating students’ mental health.

Dr. Glenn Albright is the co-founder and director of research at Kognito, the health simulation company that developed At Risk for College and University Faculty and Staff. He joined the conversation by phone.
Credit Dr. Glenn Albright
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Dr. Glenn Albright is the co-founder and director of research at Kognito, the health simulation company that developed At Risk for College and University Faculty and Staff. He joined the conversation by phone.

Still, he noted that, “about 60 percent [of faculty and staff] say that they are totally unprepared” to take on this role.

In an effort to provide faculty members with the necessary skills to comfortably have these discussions with students, the training simulates a conversation between a faculty member and a computer-generated student regarding the status of the student’s mental health.

LeBlanc explained that college counselors are noticing an increase in the percentage of their student body struggling with mental health problems for a variety of reasons, ranging from decreased stigma to the advent of social media.

It is crucial that faculty members are capable of discussing mental-health challenges with their students, explained Worthington, because many struggling students may not feel comfortable reaching out to a counselor.

“We want to find a way to widen the safety net,” she told Marsh.

LeBlanc added that, according to statistics on suicidality and risk on college campuses, “many of these students have never set foot in the mental-health services.”

“The whole purpose of this particular type of training is really to allow those people who the student may be interacting much more frequently with to … approach them in a way that actually takes down some of that resistance,” said LeBlanc.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan, and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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